Jazz Caliente: Steve Turre's Shells

May 12, 2017

Trombonist Steve Turre grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where, he says, he "absorbed daily doses of mariachi, blues and jazz."  

When he was a university student, he joined the Escovedo Brothers salsa band, and later expanded his career-long involvement in Latin jazz, working with Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, and Mongo Santamaria.  

It was multi-instrumentalist and sound-seeker Rahsaan Roland Kirk who introduced Steve to seashells as musical instruments.  Then he found out that his ancestors were also shell players.

The Aztecs used shell horns to mark time, make announcements, call to battle, and honor the gods.

Thought to be one of the first musical instruments, conch-shell horns have been used in India, Tibet, Japan, Korea, New Zealand (but not Australia, for some reason), throughout the Caribbean and pretty much any of the island nations you could think of.  Even the British Navy used them for signaling aboard ships.

Sometimes the shells can be fitted with mouthpieces, like trumpets or trombones.  But mostly it's the hole in the shell and the player's embouchure (basically, lip control) that determine the sound that the shell produces.  

Listen for Steve Turre's tribute to Machito, with trombone and shells, this week on Jazz Caliente.

Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. The program is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio