Turtle Island Quartet swings at USF

Stringing jazz along with classically informed compositions.

click to enlarge SWINGING WITH STRINGS: The Turtle Island Quartet will showcase their jazz chops this Friday at USF. - © Michael Amsler 2008
© Michael Amsler 2008
SWINGING WITH STRINGS: The Turtle Island Quartet will showcase their jazz chops this Friday at USF.

The concert was billed as "The Turtle Island Quartet performs A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane." I attended the show, held at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, with a measure of curiosity and no small amount of skepticism. I wondered: How could a classical string quartet do justice to Coltrane? Even though I had sampled the recording of the same name and was pleasantly surprised, I still wondered if these four bow-wielding virtuosos could hold my interest in a live setting. All those strings, with such a limited sonority, had to quickly grow old, I reckoned; all that sawing away would get on my nerves. And how in the hell were these fellas going to swing anywhere close to the level it would take to pull of a Coltrane program?

Well ... I walked away from the Turtle Island Quartet performance on April 26 more than convinced. The group had executed a marvelously paced program that was at once profound, lively and entertaining. They played music from a broad range of the Coltrane oeuvre: a spry "My Favorite Things," a somber "Naima" and also a tune by Chick Corea and an original by TIQ founder/violinist David Balakrishnan. The crowning achievement, though, was the foursome's heady 20-minute re-imagining of Trane's four-part suite, A Love Supreme, renowned as one of the most important pieces of music of the 20th century.

Oh, and along the way I found out: The Turtle Island Quartet can swing.

As it happens, I was working under a false set of assumptions. Early in a lengthy post-concert phone interview, Balakrishnan informs me, "Turtle Island is made up of jazz musicians who pay string instruments."


Mmm, that would account for the swing.

Balakrishnan is as facile a violin improviser as I've seen in years. The TIQ founder describes the newest member, viola player Jeremy Kittel, as a "world-class Celtic fiddler who's a great jazz musician" and violinist Mads Tolling as "more of a European jazz player, an intensely modern jazz violinist." Cellist Mark Summer, the other original member, is "the most grounded in classical," Balakrishnan says, "but he's also the greatest jazz bass player on the cello.

"Because of his classical foundation, he's always harping on us to play with more sound, to play lower on the bow. We have to produce the tone quality of a conventional string quartet, and at the same time we have to swing and be light on our feet the way that jazz requires."

One particularly effective arrow in the TIQ quiver is the quartet's ability to re-create a jazz rhythm section. By using percussive tricks from bluegrass and Celtic music, they can create an insistent beat and evoke the "comping" — the background accompaniment often performed by pianists and guitarists — so endemic to jazz.

Other, more classically inclined, string quartets have tackled jazz masterworks, transcribed iconic solos and played them as an ensemble. TIQ members up the ante by factoring in their own scintillating improvisations.

That said, the San Francisco-based TIQ is more than your basic jazz quartet. The group's ethos does not require just calling out standard tunes and blowing over the changes. The ensemble goes through exhaustive rehearsals and preparation. A Love Supreme "took about three months to arrange," said Balakrishnan, "and a good two months to get ready to record."

The group has always sought to find that fine balance between composition, arrangement and improvisation. "Clearly, we're jazz musicians in a string quartet," he says. "But it's not a gimmick. We honor the composer. We don't just dabble in jazz tunes. Part of it is finding a way to honor the composing part of the string-quartet tradition."

Turtle Island began with that idea in mind. Balakrishnan earned a master's degree in composition and needed the right ensemble to perform the music he wrote for his thesis, which combined jazz, classical, folk and Indian styles. "If I had given it to a standard string quartet, it wouldn't have come off," he explains. "It had to swing, to embrace different dialects. I recorded it all by myself [with overdubs] on four violins, including a baritone violin, but it wasn't a good enough representation."

So when Balakrishnan realized he couldn't find a band to play his tunes, he started one of his own. Turtle Island String Quartet was hatched in 1985. The group, which has included 13 players over the course of 14 albums, has done renditions of countless jazz classics, bits of the classical repertoire, hybridized original material and even some rock and blues tunes by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Robert Johnson. They have collaborated with several jazz titans as well.

Most recently, TIQ did an early-'08 tour with 35-year-old jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris, performing a program consisting mostly of Duke Ellington material.

Harris and TIQ will join forces again for a performance at the 2nd International Jazz Composer's Symposium, which takes place Thurs., June 12 through Sat., June 14 at the University of South Florida. The event features workshops, panel discussions and performances at the Fine Arts Building on the Tampa campus.

When I spoke to Balakrishnan a couple of weeks ago, the TIQ/Harris performance (Fri., June 13 at 8 p.m.) hadn't been completely mapped out. "Stefon is a typical jazz guy who doesn't like things too nailed down," the violinist says. "But we share a bond; we're the same type of animal. He's going to have some other musicians — a rhythm section and five horns, I think — and we'll play some of his material. We'll probably start out with just the quartet; Stefon will come out, and we'll do some of the Duke repertoire with him. Then at some point the other players will probably join us, and we'll play with the whole kit and caboodle."

Sounds like a true jazz moment, the kind we don't see much of around here.

For other symposium performances, see the entry in MusicWeek.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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