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.
- "Model Trane"
- "Monkey Business" (from Tree Of Life)
- "Groove In The Louvre"
Michael Katzif and Bob Boilen (cameras); edited by Michael Katzif; photo by Abby Verbosky