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Songs in the Key of Sea

Finding the 'uncommon in the common', Jamey Turner shares a bit of his magical world.

Jamey Turner has shared his musical craft with foreign dignitaries, Tonight Show viewers, dolphins, birds, and even the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the late William H. Rehnquist, who once at a private party conducted Turner, a glass harpist, and a host of friends in a sing-a-long of songs ranging from "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" to "America."

With Rehnquist moving his arms in a conductor's fashion to his left, Turner created the celestial sounds of his glass harp while a room of personal friends of Rehnquist — including four other Justices — belted out the words to popular tunes.

"He had a really great voice," said Turner of Rehnquist. "I've worked with conductors but have never been conducted by the Chief Justice. Singing at the top of his lungs — he just had the greatest time. That was a side of him that I didn't know about. It was just an amazing experience to share this music with these people."

SPEAKING WITH JAMEY TURNER is an adventure in conversation — you never know what rare narrative gem the oft-smiling man might provide. An avid storyteller, Turner's stories emphasize his outlook of "finding the uncommon in the common."

"I've played for everything — from dolphins to orcas to tigers," said Turner. "It's really an incredible thing. I once played for a flock of birds and they were circling and singing."

Turner continues, segueing into a story involving a musical handsaw, a boat and a group of dolphins while visiting in Florida.

"I jumped on the bow of the boat with my saw and started playing 'sailing, sailing, over the ocean sea' and they just started jumping. For 10 minutes it was like this huge parade. I can only imagine what it would have been like if I had my glass harp."

The magic that Turner experiences through making music is not exclusive. Peggy Morrison, a resident of Falls Church and a longtime neighbor of Turner before his recent move to Mount Vernon, recalls the first time she heard him playing his glass harp, three days after moving into the house next door.

"We were eating with the windows open and heard him playing Handel's 'Water Music' and I thought 'Oh, this will be a nice house.'"

She continued, "You joke about how you can't choose your neighbors but somehow we managed to get the neatest most talented people living next door. Occasionally he would set up in the front yard and there was a stop sign in front of the house. People would stop and ask 'what's that?' He's been a very large fixture in this area for a long time."

BORN IN MONTANA to a father who was a country doctor and a mother who taught Latin, Turner's parents were adamant about musical education. As he describes it, the rule in his house was "two years of piano and one musical instrument to master." For Turner, that instrument became the clarinet, but it was at the young age of six, during a dinner party thrown by his parents, that he was first introduced to the sound of glass.

"I was leaving the kitchen table and the earth stood still," he said. "My family and their friends played chords with their glasses at the table. It was absolutely an amazing experience. At the age of six, that became my favorite sound."

But not knowing that there were more than 400 pieces of music written for glass, Turner turned his interest in the obscure to playing the handsaw — accomplished by bending the saw for pitch, while running a bow along side the blunt edge.

"I was in a high school play that called for a handsaw to be played off stage. That was my first incarnation of the road less traveled."

Years later, Turner would find himself appearing on the Tonight Show four times with three different instruments.

TO SAY THAT TURNER "plays glass" seems almost a simplification of his art. Within minutes he can tune more than 60 brandy snifters by distributing three and a half gallons of distilled water with two turkey-basters. Not only does he play up to six glasses at the same time, creating resonation by rubbing the lip of the glass with his fingertips, he has intimate knowledge of the instrument. Every element, down to the rubber bands which hold the glasses to the sound board, has been chosen based on the experience from 28 years of playing the glass harp. He is quick to point out that he doesn't use crystal by Waterford — which he claims sustains a note for too long — just normal brandy snifters purchased anywhere from The Pottery Barn to a glass-maker in Monterey, Mexico.

"The brandy snifter is my favorite," he said. "When I go into a glass shop, I listen to that timbre. I really don't know that much about glass, just the sound, but eventually I'd like to start making my own."

When Turner isn't playing with the Maryland Symphony or at the Kennedy Center, he can be found on the marina behind the Torpedo Factory in Old Town, entertaining crowds of people who are drawn in by his smiling persona and rare instrument. Turner claims he is "one of a few dozen people in the world that plays glass."

"This guy is fantastic," said local passersby Bob Ullrich last Saturday during one of Turner's performances. "Kids love it, parents love it and he really enjoys it."

Matt Mays, a tourist from Galveston, Texas got a close-up look at Turner's glass harp as he added a little audience participation during a rendition of "Chariots of Fire" last Saturday.

"I had never even heard of this before," said Mays after the playing one of the bass glasses. "He's a great performer."

And Turner connects with the audience, showing his likable persona throughout the performance — on some days he will perform up to 10 hours.

Holding one of his musical wrenches to show the crowd, he claimed "this is the only heavy metal piece I have."

An audience member asks to see his hands and without missing a beat Turner complied, adding "I still have my fingerprints after 28 years."

"I may play with a symphony one day and on the street the next," said Turner before last weekend’s performance. "It is a great way to share such beauty. I don't want people to pay $35 to hear this."

During the performance, Turner moved between Bach, Mozart, "Star Wars" and "The William Tell Overture" mixing in commentary between songs.

"You have to move things along like a vaudeville show," said Turner.

THESE DAYS TURNER is shifting his focus onto two projects — finding a way to better record the sound that resonating glass makes and searching out the perfect set of glasses, which he believes could be manufactured and sold as a set to students interested in learning the art.

"So many people want to learn," said Turner, who has taught a number of students the craft. "I've started at least a dozen people over the years. One now plays Rock 'n' Roll in San Francisco and another is a geologist in Newfoundland."

"It's a much more complicated instrument, but I guess that goes without saying," he continued. "My piano friends look at me and shake their heads."

Turner is planning on recording a new album in the near future. His previous recording, "That Your Joy Might Be Full," is a 24-track album available for purchase on www.jameyturner.com.