Just in terms of sheer quantity — number of instruments played, miles logged, artists backed up, shows and sessions performed, and songs composed — Jeff Turmes is remarkable. And then there’s the quality of what he does — the sound, the style, the personality that informs his music.
All this is evidence in his latest release, Five Horses, Four Riders. There’s a lot of open space on this record, songs that inhabit a world of dream images, dread, weariness and desire. We hear guitars, banjos, low horns wheezing in some distance, cymbal crashes, half a string quartet. Lover’s pleas, laments, songs thrown like shadows.
Jeff grew up in Southern California. Taught himself to play bass and took off from there. Curiosity and a restless mind compelled him to take up saxophone in his early twenties. Got picked up hitchhiking by a Volkswagen driver blasting A Love Supreme, and everything changed. Discovered eventually that jazz wasn’t his language. He was writing songs, playing bass and guitar, touring with blues bands — James Harman, Gary Primich, both of whom ended up covering his songs.
Toured with vocalist and partner Janiva Magness, who has recorded a number of his compositions, while maintaining a career as a session musician on electric and acoustic bass, saxophones, guitars, bass clarinet, banjo, and keyboards.
Since early 2007 Jeff has toured as bassist and slide guitarist with the incomparable Mavis Staples. In 2010, Anti released “You Are Not Alone”, on which Mavius was backed up by her trio: Jeff on bass (and second guitar), Rick Holmstrom on guitar, and Stephen Hodges on drums. The record was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and was recorded in Chicago, at Wilco’s loft studio. “You Are Not Alone” won a Grammy Award in 2011 for Best Americana album.
In 2008 Mavis released a live CD, Hope At The Hideout,recorded in a small club in Chicago, backed by Jeff, Rick Holmstrom and Stephen Hodges, and three background vocalists. This record was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Jeff has worked as a sideman with an impressive array of artists: Tom Waits (on the Tonight Show), Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Ronny Earl,
Billy Boy Arnold, Robert Gordon, Duke Robillard, James Cotton, Jody Williams, Canned Heat, Pinetop Perkins, Koko Taylor, James Gadson, Mike Finnigan —
some of the aristocracy of blues and roots music. He has had the good fortune to record with artists as significant and diverse as Richard Thompson, R.L. Burnside, Gatemouth Brown and Peter Case, and has worked with renowned producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf.
In 2006 he won First Place in the Blues category in the International Songwriting Competition for the song “Eat The Lunch You Brought”.
His own solo recordings, Every Day’s My Lucky Day and The Distance You Can Travel, as well as his 1996 collaboration with Janiva Magness, It Takes One To Know One, bespeak his versatility as writer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger, producer, and engineer, as well as his steady maturation as a vocalist. These records feature dirt road shuffles, torch songs, and R&B-styled horn parties, soaked in irony and the fatalistic humor of the blues. Five Horses, Four Riders, his latest collection of stories, is less ironic, more contemplative, but no less intense. The music he’s made on his own, together with the body of work he’s created with others, calls up one adjective to describe the musicianship of Jeff Turmes: inspired.