The Turtle Island Quartet has earned rave reviews for their jazzy take on traditional chamber music and their classical take on traditional jazz. Now, they're taking on another style altogether: the music of Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played and inspired legions of aspiring rock stars to crank up their amps and make that feedback sing. David Balakrishnan, then a young violinist, was among those inspired. As a young violinist growing up in Los Angeles, Balakrishnan says Hendrix changed his sense of music.
"I started playing guitar actually first and quickly realized there were lots of guitar players but hey, no one was doing that on a violin," he tells Audie Cornish, guest host of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered.
Balakrishnan would grow up to form a jazz-classical fusion outfit called the Turtle Island Quartet. Tackling the music of Jimi Hendrix is not the first time the group has challenged the sound of traditional chamber music. On previous albums, they've tackled John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie.
While listening to Electric Ladyland a few years ago, Balakrishnan says he was struck by how Hendrix's writing for guitar suited the style of string quartets.
"[H]e wasn't playing a bunch of chords the way a guitar player would normally play," he says. "But with Electric Ladyland, he was really layering melodies... and the way he played the guitar, he could really get that sinuous vibrato that creates this texture and bed of melodic fragments laid on top of each other — perfect for a string quartet like Turtle Island."
The majority of Turtle Islands's Hendrix interpretations come from Electric Ladyland. Balakrishnan calls that album Hendrix's magnum opus, and says it was the ultimate expression of his creativity as a guitarist, singer and songwriter — but most of all, as a composer.
"Folks don't necessarily think of him that way," Balakrishnan says. "I feel him using his ear and his mind the way I associate with composers of the classical tradition using theirs."
Have You Ever Been…? also includes "Tree of Life," a four-part original composition by Balakrishnan that he says was inspired by Hendrix.
"I totally fell in love with something called the Hendrix chord. ... It's what you hear in 'Purple Haze,' " he says. "It just so appealed to me. ... I'm still 14, somewhere inside me, in love with Jimi Hendrix, and I hope people hear that connection."