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Turtle Island Quartet Takes on 'A Love Supreme'
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Turtle Island Quartet Takes on 'A Love Supreme'


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The music that the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane played and composed inspired many people. Among them a couple of classically trained string players - cellist Mark Summer and violinist David Balakrishnan - of the Turtle Island Quartet. Balakrishnan says that hearing Coltrane's music made him want to play jazz.

Mr. DAVID BALAKRISHNAN (Violinist): When you go to play jazz on a violin or a viola or cello, you know, right away you're faced with this need to make this transition from being a classical violinist playing at jazz to playing with some authenticity. So what you do - then you listen to a great musician like Coltrane and you're going, oh, how do I sound like that? And that begins this grappling that goes on for years. And it's a kind of a climbing Mount Everest kind of thing for us, you know.

SIEGEL: Mark Summer, for you also, this challenge of how do you play jazz on a cello?

Mr. MARK SUMMER (Cellist): Always. I'm still learning. But this music is so inspiring. When I first heard John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," it literally blew my mind. I thought this is exactly what I want to be doing. I had that same reaction that I have when I hear an amazing classical symphony.

(Soundbite of "Moment's Notice")

SIEGEL: Turtle Island has been playing unusual music as a string quartet for years. Their latest album is a tribute to Coltrane. They play "Round Midnight" and "My Favorite Things." This is from their take on "Moment's Notice."

(Soundbite of "Moment's Notice")

SIEGEL: The centerpiece of the CD is the composition that gives it its title, "A Love Supreme," Coltrane's four-part suite that he recorded in 1964.

(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")

SIEGEL: The Turtle Island version was adapted by David Balakrishnan.

(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: It's an awesome piece of music, and it takes jazz playing to a whole new level, I think, because the spiritual content of it. He was really writing a piece to God. And it makes the music feel like it's taking you on a deep spiritual journey.

(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")

SIEGEL: When we think of a jazz quartet, we think of much of what they do is two guys providing rhythm and a bassline and then a couple of other people standing up front and performing. That's not what a string quartet's all about.

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: It's true that a string quartet's about working a lot of times with everything written out note for note. Like take Beethoven Opus 59 Number 1. That's going to be like a 45 minute piece where the musicians are dealing with everything, all codified and recorded a million times. That's a completely different art form.

Jazz musicians are about something else. They're about equal dedication, equal involvement in the moment but on a different level and in different parameters. What we're trying to do is to find some kind of balance between both those traditions.

Mr. SUMMER: Our quartet is involved in creating this groove together as four people, trading roles very adeptly. I'm the cellist/bass player/drummer. I've got to be able to switch gears from playing basslines to playing the melodies on a dime.

(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")

SIEGEL: I'd like us to find a moment where we hear you, Mark, doing some of these - when you're being a bass player or a drummer with the cello.

Mr. SUMMER: Oh, sure. Well, the - a love Supreme - you know, when Jimmy Garrison is playing that chant - at the end of the piece actually John Coltrane sings a love supreme to that chant. So the bass player is going a love supreme.

(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")

Mr. SUMMER: And while I'm playing that chant, I'm using my right hand to pluck and I'm also hitting the fingerboard every once in a while to give a sense of the sound of the drums as best that I can do it, being a one-man band for that moment.

(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")

SIEGEL: I'd like us to take a listen to your version of "My Favorite Things," which of course is a big John Coltrane hit.

(Soundbite of "My Favorite Things")

SIEGEL: Now, this is a much more conventional number for a jazz artist, which is taking a pop song of the day - a Rogers and Hammerstein tune from Broadway - and playing it as a jazz tune. So you're coming at this on the second level here. He already was taking somebody else's music. And Mark Summer, what are you doing now here in this?

Mr. SUMMER: I was actually playing the melody for a change. Isn't that nice? You know, I've got this role of being so much the bass player, and I love it. You've got to realize, I love it. I've been doing it - we've been together 21 years. And it's - one of my biggest honors was being profiled in Bass Player magazine. But I'm a cellist.

(Soundbite of "My Favorite Things")

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: Similar to Coltrane, you do have this issue playing a tune like "My Favorite Things," which is, you know, Julie Andrews singing in the "Sound of Music." And that's - that could be pretty cheeky. And so we have to find a way to create something artistic in it, as well as maintain it's beautiful - it's a beautiful melody. And that's also part of the attempt here, is to get something a little more modern sounding without going to the Coltrane level of it.

(Soundbite of "My Favorite Things")

SIEGEL: Well, if there's a talented young violinist or cellist listening right now who likes your music tremendously, is the message to that young - I'm sure the message is to follow his bliss at some point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUMMER: That is true.

SIEGEL: Is the message to that musician that the conservatory training, the rigorous classical training, is no less important if your ambitions are to play it the way you guys are playing, or you know, go find a jazz club where you can hang around and just, you know, play gigs on the jazz viola for a while? What do you say?

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: Well, both those styles take study. So even if you're going to do it on your own, if you're going to play jazz on your own, you have to study the style. You have to develop your vocabulary. It's similar to learning to speak a foreign language.

So if you're a young player and you're wanting to improvise, one of the first things you have to deal with is how to learn harmony and how to learn how to create phrases that follow chord progressions. This is completely foreign to a classical musician.

And the other part of your question is equally important, is in that striving you'll get excited and you'll think this is really cool. My friends really like when I play this rock and roll licks. And that's great, but don't lose sight of the fact that the violin is a very difficult instrument and the classical tradition is where you get your grounding.

And you need to spend that time to practice your tone and your intonation and your scales with a great teacher and find a way to cut to the chase, to join together at some point. And that's - it's a great way to go, if you want to go that way.

SIEGEL: David Balakrishnan, a violinist, and Mark Summer, cellist, both of the Turtle Island Quartet. Thank you both very much for talking with us about your album, "A Love Supreme."

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: Thanks very much.

Mr. SUMMER: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: And you can hear more of the Turtle Island Quartet playing Coltrane and Coltrane playing Coltrane at our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

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