Turtle Island Quartet: Tiny Desk Concert On a dime they can pivot from classical quartet to jazz combo, complete with a rhythm section. Watch the Grammy-winning members of the Turtle Island Quartet swing and groove at the NPR Music offices.

Tiny Desk

Turtle Island Quartet

Turtle Island Quartet: Tiny Desk Concert

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133774005/133804081" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

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

Jason Isbell performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 30, 2017. (Claire Harbage/NPR) Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Claire Harbage/NPR

Jason Isbell

The Alabama singer-songwriter and his band perform three songs from The Nashville Sound, but their set includes a few surprises, too.

ALA.NI performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 20, 2017. (Photo: Liam James Doyle/NPR) Liam James Doyle/NPR/NRR hide caption

toggle caption Liam James Doyle/NPR/NRR

ALA.NI

ALA.NI captures and conveys a reverent love of early-20th-century music, while injecting those sounds with charisma and charm well suited for any era.

Maggie Rogers performs a Tiny Desk concert at NPR headquarters. Liam James Doyle/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Liam James Doyle/NPR

Maggie Rogers

The rising pop star performs three of her best-known songs, including a sweet solo take on her career-making "Alaska."

Aldous Harding performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 6, 2017. (Claire Harbage/NPR) Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Claire Harbage/NPR

Aldous Harding

Intensity in songs often expresses itself as volume – a loud guitar, a scream, a piercing synth line. But in the case of Aldous Harding it's in the spaces, the pauses, and her unique delivery.

James Mercer of The Shins performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 19, 2017. (Liam James Doyle/NPR) Liam James Doyle/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Liam James Doyle/NPR

The Shins

James Mercer, the emotional and creative heart of The Shins, gives a moving performance at the Tiny Desk, with two new songs and a classic from the band's 2003 album Chutes Too Narrow.

Albin Lee Meldau performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 12, 2017. (Claire Harbage/NPR) Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Claire Harbage/NPR

Albin Lee Meldau

Albin Lee Meldau possesses a thunderous, deeply affecting voice, which he uses to tell some utterly dark, but demonstrably cathartic, tales.

Rare Essence performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 9, 2017. (Liam James Doyle/NPR) Liam James Doyle/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Liam James Doyle/NPR

Rare Essence

Rare Essence has been bringing go-go to the world since 1976 — the group brought that pedigree, and the genre's massive meld of funk, rhythm and blues and soul, to this raucous hometown Tiny Desk.

Tuxedo performs a Tiny Desk Concert on May 20th, 2017. (Claire Harbage/NPR) Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Claire Harbage/NPR

Tuxedo

Tuxedo, the unlikely-on-paper funk-soul duo of Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One, brought a left-of-center sonic approach and a sharp sense of style to their Tiny Desk Concert.

Fragile Rock performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 16, 2017. (Photo: Liam James Doyle/NPR) Liam James Doyle/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Liam James Doyle/NPR

Fragile Rock

Fragile Rock is a band that relies on the boogie of The B-52s, the melancholy of The Smiths and the humor of Kermit the Frog. Oh, and they're all puppets.

Jay Som performs a Tiny Desk Concert on June 7, 2017. (Liam James Doyle/NPR) Liam James Doyle/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Liam James Doyle/NPR

Jay Som

Melina Duterte may have played all the instruments on Jay Som's newest record, Everybody Works, but her touring band brought a rougher edge to those silky recordings.

Back To Top