Quartet San Francisco: Brubeck On Strings The chamber ensemble earned two Grammy nominations for its 2009 album, which rearranged classic tunes by the jazz composer Dave Brubeck. On the eve of the Grammy Awards, the string quartet visited NPR to play songs like "Blue Rondo a la Turk."
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Quartet San Francisco: Brubeck On Strings

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Quartet San Francisco: Brubeck On Strings

Quartet San Francisco: Brubeck On Strings

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

As tonight's 52nd Annual Grammy Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles gets underway, members of the Quartet San Francisco will be crossing their fingers and hoping for good news. Their CD "QSF Plays Brubeck" received nominations in two categories - Best Classical Crossover Album and Best Engineered Classical Album.

The CD celebrates the 50th anniversary of Dave Brubeck's cool classic "Time Out" with string quartet renditions of his tunes. It also contains the composition by saxophonist Paul Desmond that was a big hit for Brubeck, "Take Five."

(Soundbite of song, "Take Five")

HANSEN: Quartet San Francisco joins us in NPR Studio 4A. Welcome to violinist Jeremy Cohen.

Mr. JEREMY COHEN (Violinist, Quartet San Francisco): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: And to Alisa Rose, also a violinist.

Ms. ALISA ROSE (Violinist, Quartet San Francisco): Hello.

HANSEN: And violist Keith Lawrence.

Mr. KEITH LAWRENCE (Violist, Quartet San Francisco): Hi.

HANSEN: And cellist Michelle Djokic.

Ms. MICHELLE DJOKIC (Cellist, Quartet San Francisco): Hey, Liane.

HANSEN: Hey. I'm looking at your repertoire and I've seen in the past that you've done work by Jazz men Raymond Scott, Chick Corea, Duke Ellington. Jeremy, this is a question probably best for you 'cause you've done arrangements and you've played jazz. Why does jazz work for a classical string quartet?

Mr. COHEN: Well, for us, any of the music that we really resonate with, the music that we grew up with, the music of Brubeck, Chick Corea and Raymond Scott - all the people you mentioned - I've always felt if I can walk down the street and sing these things to myself that we should be able to respell them in strings.

HANSEN: You're going to play "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and Jeremy, you did the arrangement. And this arrangement dates back to the year 2000, if I'm not mistaken.

Mr. COHEN: Yes. This is one of the pieces that actually gave birth to Quartet San Francisco.

HANSEN: Well, you write in the notes that this is QSF's first venture into Brubeckistan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Well, I've been listening to Brubeck since I was a child. Since "Time Out" came out I was a Brubeck fan.

HANSEN: So, you were well-prepared to enter that foreign country.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, we were told about the four Bs - you know, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Brubeck - in my family.

HANSEN: Excellent. Well, let's hear Quartet San Francisco with "Blue Rondo a la Turk."

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Rondo a la Turk")

HANSEN: That's QSF, or Quartet San Francisco playing Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk." They played it live for us in NPR's Studio 4A, and you can also find it on their CD "QSF Plays Brubeck."

Do I assume all of you have had classical music training?

Ms. ROSE: Yes.

Mr. COHEN: Indeed.

HANSEN: You have, you have. I wonder, do you need different techniques to play jazz on these old instruments?

Mr. COHEN: Well, we do employ some different techniques in these pieces. Alisa, you can show us a little bit of chop, you know, to emulate the sound of drums.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COHEN: And also, you know, we'll do idiomatically things that exist in jazz that are maybe perhaps considered no-nos in classical music. You know, big...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COHEN: ...big grinding slides and speaking in the jazz language. We want to sort of, in crossing over, we want to employ the vocabulary of both idioms.

HANSEN: Cellist Michelle Djokic, you've spent a lot of time with symphony orchestras, how did you develop the techniques that you needed to play jazz?

Ms. DJOKIC: Well, Liane, I've spent a lot of time in the classical music world, in chamber music and symphonic playing. And I've always actually approached music always from my heart. Either way, it's definitely an honest and beautiful experience for me every time I take on any music regardless of the genre.

But in jazz it's very liberating in many ways, because as Jeremy was saying, there are these slides that we can do, and actually need to find a way to do them with fingerings that are completely unorthodox to the way we were trained - classically, that is. And, you know, I remember listening to Elvis Presley when I was a little girl saying, oh my gosh, that's so beautiful, and then also listening to (unintelligible) and saying, wow, there's something there. The two of them are sharing, you know.

And thinking, well, (unintelligible) can get away with it, but anybody else couldn't get away with it because we'd be accused of copying something. But now this is such a kind of fusion of many worlds coming together now and the ability to express oneself very vocally. For me, it's much more like a wind instrument and a voice.

HANSEN: Ah, interesting. Keith, was viola your first choice of instrument?

Mr. LAWRENCE: Actually, I started on clarinet.

HANSEN: You didn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAWRENCE: I played clarinet and my friends could cut jokes while they were playing the string instruments and they would tell me a joke and I would get in trouble for squeaking. So, then I switched instruments, and I didn't want to be the kid on the school bus carrying the bass or the cello, and the violin, to me, was not okay.

HANSEN: But I can imagine you, though, hearing some clarinet riffs on some old jazz tunes, thinking...

Mr. LAWRENCE: Oh yeah.

HANSEN: ...ah, can I do that on my viola? Maybe I can.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Yeah.

HANSEN: Next month, you all are going to be participating in the American String Teachers Association National Conference. And, Alisa, I guess I'm going to direct this question to you because you are in the schools program in San Francisco. You've been working with fifth graders, second graders. And right now so many schools in this country are cutting back on their music education programs, especially string programs. And I wonder what your hopes are, realistic hopes are for music education and, you know, how it can be made a priority.

Ms. ROSE: Well, I think it's so important for kids to have the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument if they want or be immersed in music. When I've taught kids, I'm always really impressed by how innately many kids want to play music and how they're driven to do it, no matter if they've had it in their home communities or not.

HANSEN: Well, we want you to play us out with another tune that appears on your CD "QSF Plays Brubeck." And I'll remind everybody that it's nominated for two Grammy Awards - Best Classical Crossover Album and Best Engineered Classical Album. And this is another tune you're going to play from the CD. This is a tune called "Kathy's Waltz." Jeremy, you want to tell us something about it?

Mr. COHEN: Well, yes. "Kathy's Waltz" is from Dave Brubeck's "Time Out" album, which I used to listen to on the family hi-fi. And he wrote this for his daughter Katherine, and translated by Quartet San Francisco.

HANSEN: All right, well, this is Quartet San Francisco in NPR Studio 4A. Before we hear it, let me just say thanks to all of you for coming in. Jeremy Cohen, Alisa Rose, Keith Lawrence and Michelle Djokic. Together they're Quartet San Francisco, QSF. Again, thanks and best of luck at the Grammys to you.

Ms. ROSE: Thanks.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Thanks a lot.

Mr. COHEN: Fingers crossed.

(Soundbite of song, "Kathy's Waltz")

HANSEN: Our Studio 4A recording with Quartet San Francisco was engineered by Neil Tevault. And you can hear full performances from this session on our Web site nprmusic.org.

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