Tiny Desk

Turtle Island Quartet

Download Audio

Turtle Island Quartet: Tiny Desk Concert

The string quartet might be a 250-year-old contraption, but the members of the Turtle Island Quartet keep it revved up and ready to zoom in surprising directions.

The group sounds totally at home covering jazz great Oliver Nelson's "Yearnin'," French composer Darius Milhaud's La Creation du Monde, or Lennon and McCartney's "Because." And those tunes all appear on a single album.

While touring their latest record of Jimi Hendrix arrangements, the Turtle Island players squeezed behind Bob Boilen's desk to play a set of original tunes by the group's founder and lead fiddler, David Balakrishnan.

It was Hendrix, Balakrishnan says, who changed the way he thought about music as a young violinist growing up in Los Angeles. Then he discovered bebop, 12-tone classical music, Dave Grisman's swinging bluegrass and jazz fusion. Forming Turtle Island, he says, "was the way I found to connect all the dots."

Balakrishnan and his quartet connect with audiences, too. They've earned two Grammy Awards in the Best Classical Crossover category, although they behave more like a jazz combo. All four members are equally skilled in both classical technique and jazz improvisation. "It's part of the job description," Balakrishnan says. The players use sheet music, but there's plenty of room to trade off improvised solos. And cellist Mark Summer doubles as a bass player and a percussionist, spending as much time slapping walking bass lines as he does bowing his instrument the traditional way.

"Model Trane," the opening tune in this concert, is a John Coltrane-inspired piece, propelled by Summer's swinging pizzicato. Balakrishnan describes "Monkey Business," which follows, as "loosely based on a sardonic view of Darwin's theory of evolution." The music itself evolves and flows, from classical to snippets of bluegrass to a quote from Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night." The set ends with "Groove in the Louvre," a Django Reinhardt-inspired cooker, highlighted with showers of notes from Balakrishnan and backed by Summer's hard-driving groove.

The term "crossover" may have taken on a somewhat pejorative connotation in recent years. But the Turtle Island Quartet embodies the finest, most fun and open-minded essence of the word. It's impossible not to love it.

Set List

  • "Model Trane"
  • "Monkey Business" (from Tree Of Life)
  • "Groove In The Louvre"

Credits

Michael Katzif and Bob Boilen (cameras); edited by Michael Katzif; photo by Abby Verbosky

[+] read more[-] less

More From Tiny Desk

Tiny Desk Concert with EL VY. NPR hide caption

toggle caption NPR

Tiny Desk

EL VY

The National's Matt Berninger and Menomena's Brent Knopf team up in an intimate setting.

Tiny Desk Concert with The Arcs. Jessica Mowery/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jessica Mowery/NPR

Tiny Desk

The Arcs

It's our 500th show at the Tiny Desk, featuring The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and his new band.

Tiny Desk Concert with Wolf Alice. NPR hide caption

toggle caption NPR

Tiny Desk

Wolf Alice

The band's music can be noisy and primal, but at the Tiny Desk it showed a different side.

Tiny Desk Concert with River Whyless. Jun Tsuboike/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jun Tsuboike/NPR

Tiny Desk

River Whyless

The North Carolina band fills its rootsy music with unexpected instruments and clever ideas.

Tiny Desk Concert with Benny Sings. Morgan Walker/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Morgan Walker/NPR

Tiny Desk

Benny Sings

The Dutch singer layers R&B, jazz and pop over hip-hop beats in his first-ever U.S. appearance.

Tiny Desk Concert with Natalie Merchant Jun Tsuboike /NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jun Tsuboike /NPR

Tiny Desk

Natalie Merchant

The singer-songwriter gives a warmhearted performance of two new songs, an old favorite and a hymn.

Tiny Desk Concert with Mariachi Flor De Toloache Jun Tsuboike/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jun Tsuboike/NPR

Tiny Desk

Mariachi Flor De Toloache

While on tour with The Arcs, the powerhouse mariachi band performs live in the NPR Music offices.

Tiny Desk Concert with Rapsody Jun Tsuboike/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jun Tsuboike/NPR

Tiny Desk

Rapsody

Watch the rapper perform three songs from Beauty And The Beast live at the NPR Music offices.

In January, Mucca Pazza set a Tiny Desk record by fitting 23 members onstage. Colin Marshall/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Colin Marshall/NPR

All Songs Considered

2015: Looking Back On A Year At The Tiny Desk

This year, NPR Music published 84 sessions from behind Bob Boilen's desk. Here are 15 highlights.

Tiny Desk Concert with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings Jun Tsuboike/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jun Tsuboike/NPR

Tiny Desk

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

Watch the soul star perform "Silent Night" and two originals — one for Christmas, one for Hanukkah.

Back To Top

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor