Turtle Island String Quartet

Photo Credit: Tim Owens

Turtle Island String Quartet

On this enlightening edition of Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, the Turtle Island String Quartet blends European classical instrumentation with jazz and "American vernacular" music. One of only a handful of chamber jazz ensembles working without a conventional jazz rhythm section, the Quartet has toured and recorded with Dr. Billy Taylor, making for easy conversation and musical camaraderie.

The Quartet kicks off with a spell-binding rendition of the Miles Davis-Victor Feldman classic "Seven Steps To Heaven." This wonderfully intricate arrangement includes an introduction from the gorgeous Bill Evans ballad "Blue In Green." After the applause settles, Dr. Taylor introduces the members of the group, which includes violinist Darol Anger, violinist Tracy Silverman, violist Danny Seidenberg and cellist Mark Summer.

Alger saw the ensemble as an opportunity to apply the jazz vocabulary to a basic instrumental sound from the European classical tradition. He elaborates, "We really wanted to play American vernacular music. Just about every string quartet I've ever heard plays with a European accent," he jokes. Prior to forming the Quartet, Alger was improvising with "jazz-flavored" music as a member of mandolin player David Grisman's group, which also fused a lot of other American elements, including country, bluegrass and folk.

The show's music is particularly tailored for the occasion; among the musical selections are three movements of "Homage," a piece Dr. Taylor originally wrote for the Julliard String Quartet, as well as collaborations with the Billy Taylor Trio. In his introduction to the first movement of "Homage," Dr. Taylor tells the audience that he wrote the composition to reflect such noted jazz string players as violinist Eddie South, as well as bassists Oscar Pettiford and Slam Stewart. The second movement opens with Chip Jackson's deeply sonorous bass and features Anger on violin. Later, "Bernie's Tune" spotlights cellist Mark Summer playing the bass line.

Violist Danny Seidenberg adds a comedic element to the group, though his musicianship is no laughing matter. Seidenberg refers to himself as a "pit rat" for all the show orchestras he has performed in, eliciting laughter from the audience with his recollection of playing "1000 Nutcracker [Suite]'s and counting." He says that he's retired his pit band tuxedo for a spot in the Turtle Island String Quartet. A rousing rendition of Charlie Parker's bop classic "Billie's Bounce" features Seidenberg's front-line abilities.

Later, a member of the audience asks how the group, which is obviously a cooperative unit, makes musical and business decisions. Anger replies that they have a clause that compels every group member to try each others' new ideas at least once, whether they agree with the idea or not.

Another audience member asks the Quartet what challenges they face when working with Billy's trio, and in turn asks Billy what challenges he faces working with the Quartet. Darol explains that string players can incorporate all of the components of a full jazz ensemble, including rhythmic elements. He demonstrates rhythmic techniques that let the bow make contact with the body of the instrument, generating a percussive effect. When playing with the trio, Anger suggests, they revert to the role of a jazz horn section, as we hear in several performances this evening.

In every context, these musicians demonstrate outstanding versatility and ability, while bringing European classical instrumentation into the expressive realm of jazz performance.

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