Examiner.com – San Francisco
The Turtle Island Quartet has been giving concerts under the auspices of San Francisco Performances (SFP) since 1991 (back when they were known as the “Turtle Island String Quartet”); so an SFP gig at Herbst Theatre offered the most appropriate venue for their 25th Anniversary Concert.
Furthermore, as Brent Assink, Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony, said of the Symphony’s centennial season, when you have a big birthday, you want to invite all of your friends. Considering the impact that Turtle Island has had on string quartet performances, jazz, and the recognition that music need not be confined by boundaries of genre, their quarter-century mark was definitely a “big birthday.” However, when one tries to account for all of the collegial relationships they have formed through the breadth of their approach to performing, it is hard to image that the Herbst stage could hold all of their friends. So last night we in the audience had to be content with two of those friends, jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut and eclectic mandolinist Mike Marshall.
The program gave an excellent account of the many different projects that have engaged Turtle Island over the last 25 years. At one end we had two selections from their debut album with Windham Hill in 1988: Miles Davis’ “Milestones” and Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” (taken as the encore for the evening). At the other we had four tracks from their latest release, Have You Ever Been…?, three by Jimi Hendrix, “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” “House Burning Down,” and “All Along The Watchtower,” and “Monkey Business,” the scherzo movement from the Tree of Life suite by founding member David Balakrishnan.
The guests also contributed selections to the evening repertoire. Chestnut introduced a particularly moving (but not overly sentimental) take on the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and a highly imaginative approach to weaving his own jazzy “chorale prelude” on the final chorus of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 147 cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. The text of the chorus is “Jesu bleibet meine Freude,” better known in English as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” In the Christmas spirit Marshall performed his own interpretation of “Angels We Have Heard on High” with Chestnut and violist Jeremy Kittel, as well as “Gator Strut” (the title track from his own latest album) with the entire Quartet. He also joined the Quartet in “All Along The Watchtower.”
To go back to one of those features that has distinguished Turtle Island since their formation, this was an evening of making music without ever being constrained by any preconceived notions of genre. As I observed in my preview piece, the original members of Turtle Island “came together to jam;” and over the last 25 years they have demonstrated that just about any music can benefit from jamming, whether it was written by Bach for a church service (in this particular case the Feast of Visitation) or it was one of the wilder psychedelic excursions of Hendrix. Perhaps the best way to summarize the spirit of last night is through a slight pun: Last night was all about the dual semantics of “play,” under which just about any form of music was “fair game.”