Turtle Island Quartet Re-Imagine Jimi Hendrix, With Strings The group, led by violinist David Balakrishnan, has earned rave reviews for their jazzy take on traditional chamber music. Their latest album, Have You Ever Been ... ?, features interpretations of Jimi Hendrix compositions and continues to push the boundaries of classical fusion.

Turtle Island Quartet Re-Imagine Jimi Hendrix, With Strings

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(Soundbite of music)


The sound is unmistakable. Jimi Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played. He inspired legions of inspiring rock stars to crank up their amps and make that feedback sing. Hendrix also inspired a young violinist growing up in Los Angeles.

David Balakrishnan would grow up to form a jazz classical fusion outfit called the Turtle Island Quartet. The group has challenged the sound of traditional chamber music for string by taking on John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. The latest target: Jimi Hendrix and his Stratocaster.

(Soundbite of song, "Voodoo Child")

CORNISH: This is Turtle Island's version of "Voodoo Child" from the CD "Have You Ever Been." David Balakrishnan joins me from our studios in Southern California.

Welcome, David.

Mr. DAVID BALAKRISHNAN (Violinist, Turtle Island Quartet): Why, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: I'm assuming you're a lifelong Hendrix fan. I mean, what did you hear in that music growing up?

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: Oh, I just so much love that. Just when I heard that first clip of "Voodoo Child," it just puts - still to this day, puts chills on my arms. Just as a 14-year-old youngster growing up in Los Angeles, he was the ultimate for music and for culture, as far as I was concerned.

And I was playing violin, just like my parents would want me to and following that directive, and then heard Hendrix and, you know, pretty much changed my whole sense of what I felt about music. And I really went for that big time.

Started playing guitar, actually, at first, and then quickly realized there were lots of guitar players. But, hey, nobody was doing that on the violin.

CORNISH: Wait a second. So are you a guitarist stuck in a violinist's body?

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: I was a violinist putting a guitar in a violinist's body. I put it that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: Meaning that the guitar didn't last because it was like, he's trying to sound like a violin. I know that. I can hear it. He's got that feedback going. I can do that with a bow. I can sustain the note; just change the way I hear in my mind.

And right away, when I was a kid, I just started playing blues licks and Hendrix licks on the violin. And guess what? My friends thought it was amazing. Girls liked it. It was just kind of an obvious thing to go for. So it kind of set me on my path.

(Soundbite of song, "Voodoo Child")

CORNISH: I want you to help us hear Jimi Hendrix differently, because you're right. When we think of Hendrix, we hear those signature sounds, the feedback, the whaling high notes and those bends in the low notes. But what do you hear, not as a fan but as a composer?

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: Yeah, and that happened as I got older. When I was a youngster growing up, I heard just the sheer audacity of it and it spoke to my teenage heart. And as I got older, of course, I got attracted to other styles of music, especially jazz and classical music, composition, and started integrating everything.

And then looking back to Hendrix, I was listening to "Electric Lady Land" a couple of years ago, and I was so struck by hearing how what he was doing with the guitar was he was composing the way somebody would write for string quartet, in the sense that he wasn't really playing a whole bunch of chords the way a guitar player would normally play just laying down chords - of course he does that. But with "Electric Lady Land," he was really layering melodies that he was playing on the guitar.

And the way he played the guitar, he was able to get that kind of 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.

CORNISH: Now, you've mostly drawn from "Electric Lady Land," that particular Hendrix album. And I'm wondering why that one really spoke to you in terms of translating it for the quartet.

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: To me, that was his magnum opus.

(Soundbite of song, "Electric Lady Land")

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: The CD we made before this was called "The Love Supreme" where we tackled Coltrane's magnum opus. So "Electric Lady Land" is, to me, the ultimate expression of Hendrix at his highest creative powers, not only as a guitarist and a singer and songwriter but as a composer. Folks don't necessarily think of him that way.

I feel him using his ear and his mind the way I associate with composers in the classical tradition using theirs. I felt just really drawn to see if we could give him some of that breath so folks could experience that side of him.

(Soundbite of song, "Electric Lady Land")

CORNISH: My guest is David Balakrishnan. He's a violinist with the Turtle Island Quartet. The group's new CD features interpretations of Jimi Hendrix's music. It's called "Have You Ever Been."

Now, David, you've also got a four-part composition of your own on the album, and it's called "Tree of Life." Tell me how this was inspired by Hendrix's music.

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: When I was a kid listening to Hendrix, the thing that I personally hooked on - and not everybody hooks on the same thing when you're a teenager, okay? People that know me know this - it's a quirky thing in my composition - is I totally fell in love with a sound of something that's called the Hendrix chord, which for you musicians out there, you know it's also called a sharp nine. And it's what you hear in "Purple Haze." Dong, dung, jang, ge, dong, dung, jang.


Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: And it has this thing of a major third and a minor third that makes your soul stretch and feel like you're just, like, taffy. And it sounded so bad. And it just so appealed to me. And so I used that. So, ever since, Dave, you use a lot of sharp nines, you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: ...(unintelligible), almost like nailed on it.

And the way he used that chord, it was designed to create that reaction in you. And I love that same kind of energy and so much of my writing draws from that.

(Soundbite of song, "Tree of Life")

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: And then also, the second part is the more general idea of -when I was 14 or 15 years old, I was like any other violinist. I was reading music off the page. And Hendrix was the guy, when I heard him, I realized there's got to be some way to get off the page and play like that. When you form as a child, that makes - everything else grows from that.

So when I hear my music, when I hear "Tree of Life" with its - it's just a tremendous range of style - the influence from India, from Africa, from Latin America, from folk music, from classical music - it's still me singing through that, and I'm still 14 somewhere inside me in love with Jimi Hendrix. And I hope people hear that connection.

CORNISH: Near the end of the record, your cellist, Mark Summer, performs a pretty funky version of "Little Wing." Let's hear some of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Wing")

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: I love that.


CORNISH: I mean, I'm having a little trouble imagining Mark Summer lifting the cello behind his head though or playing it with his teeth, so...

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: I have to tell you. There's a really hilarious clip of Hendrix playing the violin. Did you know that?

CORNISH: No, no. Tell me about it.

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: There is. There's like a - you can go on YouTube or somewhere, you'll find there's a clip of him in the studio with his bandmates and they're messing around like crazy and Hendrix playing the violin. You can't hear him playing, but he does this thing where he puts it behind his head, he starts bowing it behind his head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And of course, I wanted to use that like crazy, but you can't do things like that, you know? It's like, that's too far. But, you know, it really cracks me up. There's this weird connection to see him do that.

CORNISH: What was it like doing this interpretation, especially after you've done things like Miles Davis and John Coltrane? Because there are unique challenges to interpreting jazz for the string quartet; what are the challenges doing it with rock?

(Soundbite of song, "All Along the Watchtower")

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: Rock is anything but subtle sometimes. So it's important to deliver on the musical elements that make you fall in love with him in a level you may not even understand you're falling in love - why you're falling in love with him. And so, connecting that with Coltrane, same kind of idea.

I guess the answer to that question is, you look for the underlying truth and beauty and genius that's going on, the connection of Hendrix next to Miles Davis, next to (unintelligible), and you take a group like Turtle Island, which is a string quartet - and string quartets in the European culture really represented the ultimate expression of their culture - so why can't a string quartet of American players and American-minded people express American culture and not just jazz but rock 'n' roll, why not? And give it something that really has substance to it?

(Soundbite of song, " All Along the Watchtower")

CORNISH: David Balakrishnan is a founding member of the Turtle Island Quartet. The group's new record is called "Have You Ever Been: The Music of Jimi Hendrix."

David, thanks so much.

Mr. BALAKRISHNAN: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And you can hear tracks from that album on our website, nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "All Along the Watchtower")

CORNISH: For Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Thanks for listening and have a good night.

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