STEPPING OUT Jackson Hole News&Guide, Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Turtle Island still blending classic, crazy
By Richard Anderson
It’s been about 27 years since violinist David Balakrishnan founded the Turtle Island String Quartet, and still, talking about it, he gets excited — like a guy who just pioneered a hairy route up a long, steep cliff face and can’t wait to get back on the rock.
“We’re not just four guys jamming,” he said. “We had to have a strong compositional aspect. We play John Coltrane, but also we play original music. … We’re also able to go into different styles and collaborate with classical or jazz or folk musicians without losing our core identity. … We’re an extension of the form rather than a departure. We’re not playing off the form, we’re playing within the form, embracing American jazz traditions without violating the terms of the quartet.”
The Turtle Island Quartet (the band dropped “string” from its name in 2007) — Balakrishnan, fellow founder cellist Mark Summer, and new members violinist Mateusz Smoczynski, of Poland, and violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, of Germany — perform the first “Spotlight” concert of the Grand Teton Music Festival’s 2012 season tonight. With original string quartet music by Balakrishnan, the group also will perform selections from its 2007 Grammy-winner, “A Love Supreme,” featuring arrangements of seminal pieces by saxophone god John Coltrane, and from 2010’s “Have You Ever Been … ?” tribute to rock titan Jimi Hendrix.
Balakrishnan’s excitement stems, perhaps, from the fact that the rock climbing analogy isn’t so far off.
Turtle Island Quartet, in various incarnations, has been blending classical string styles with jazz, rock and other music for 27 years. The group will play at Walk Festival Hall tonight.
nan said. “We don’t want to be caught by the brand.”
Changing membership, far from being an obstacle to longevity, helps to refresh the group from time to time. Bal- akrishnan warmly greets the very recent additions of Smoc- zynski and von Gutzeit — both of whom bring a characteristic European classical approach to jazz and improvisation.
“The inspiration for the group comes from the players,” he said. “One reason we’ve last- ed is this turn over. It has rein- vigorated this group with new sounds. … That’s another big part of the story of the group.”
Rising to new challenges is another part of the equation.
“We’d never done anything like that Coltrane album,” he said. “But we love the crazy ideas, the things that are al- most impossible.
“It took months of suffering,” he said of “A Love Supreme.” “We took the arrangement really seriously. We’re normally looser, can rely on the piece to carry it … but this is hallowed ground, and to figure out how to do that with Turtle Island took a lot of experimenting and practice and failure. It’s not just a tune, but a real work of art, a large form work of art. … I think Coltrane only played it two or three times in his whole life. We’ve played it two or three hundred times or more. I always tell people in the audience, ‘This is not easy listening.’”
In fact, “A Love Supreme” may epitomize the balance that has earned the group so much success.
“We spend a lot of rehears- al time working out written parts,” he said. “It takes tre- mendous practice. It’s more like the classical tradition. It’s not free-form improvisation; we focus on ensemble playing. You don’t find that in jazz. String quartets rehearse, practice five days a week, take two bars and spend five hours on them. It’s a classical performance prac- tice brought into jazz language, taking jazz language but re- quired classical traditions. … It’s fun.”
￼journey has been one of vision and problem solving, and it owes its staying power to a su- preme balancing act.
A product of the 1960s and ’70s, Balakrishnan found him- self as a young man torn be- tween several spheres.
“It’s a common story for string players that get off the page,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “You’re play- ing what your teacher tells you to play, playing in an orchestra, but then you realize the mu- sic you’re playing doesn’t have anything to do with what your friends are listening to.”
He got his rock ya-yas out playing electric guitar in a band as a young teen, but he also dis- covered that, in fact, there were violinists who were improvis- ing and pulling out all the stops — guys like Papa John Creach of Jefferson Airplane and Jerry Goodman of The Flock and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
“He had really long hair,” he recalled of Goodman, “and he was waving it around, and that’s what I wanted to do. I could identify with that. … I
just got on fire with the idea.” Still, as a serious student of music and the violin, he under- stood he had a lot to learn. He earned degrees in composition at UCLA and Antioch Universi- ty West. In 1981, at Antioch, he had a fantasy of writing string quartets for four like-minded players: guys grounded in jazz and folk and world music. Not knowing any other string play- ers like him, he wrote the mu- sic, overdubbed the parts, and
made quartets out of them. But it turned out Balakrish- nan wasn’t alone. He had a great friend, violinist Darol Anger — whose own biogra- phy could fill several pages — who shared his vision. Then, in 1984, Canadian cellist Sum- mer “showed up on our door step.” A student of Balakrish- nan, violist Laurie Moore, made four, and all of a sudden,
he had a quartet.
“People hadn’t heard a
string quartet that could really swing,” he said.
The group’s self-entitled pre- miere — released in 1988 on
the New Age/smooth jazz label Windham Hill — was “like a barking cat,” he said.
Balakrishnan chalks up suc- cess, to an extent, to being at the right place at the right time with the right idea.
“It might not have worked five years earlier, and five years later it might have been thought of by someone else,” he said.
It was a time when the clas- sical and jazz audiences were “graying,” Balakrishnan said, “and here comes Turtle Island, following the rules of string quartets, but you can tap your foot to it.”
Whether you leaned toward Haydn and Beethoven or Bru- beck and Davis, there was something here for you.
“And the fact that we’re do- ing this 27 years later, that rep- resents something very impor- tant,” he said. “It’s hard to stay around that long, and for year after year, to be relevant.”
Being a well-known and -loved name has its pitfalls.
“We’re always trying to grow and change,” Balakrish-
MC Yogi to serve up reggae, hip-hop and … yoga?
By Brian Bultema
MC Yogi expresses his eternal optimism through music, movement and meditations.
Whether he’s talking about reggae, about rein- carnation or his pre-performance yoga practice, Yogi constantly emits a positive vibe.
Yogi intertwines music genres from electronica to hip-hop to reggae with his predominantly Bud- dhist and Hindu philosophies.
“It’s a lot to put up on stage, but it’s taking my many streams of inspiration and simply weaving all of those strands together,” Yogi said.
Yogi makes his Jackson debut at 5 p.m. Sunday in the first of six shows for the Concerts on the Commons series in Teton Village. An hour before the show, instructors from Yoga Today will lead a free yoga session on the Commons.
This year’s series features one additional week,and several artists new to Jackson. The art- ists slated to play span the genre spectrum, from country soul to world music.
“Our main idea was to have a varied style of mu- sic for each Sunday so those who see them all will
MC Yogi kicks off this summer’s Concerts on the Commons series on Sunday.
get something new every week,” said Dom Gagliar- di of the Pink Garter Theatre and Poppa Presents.
Gagliardi said it’s fitting to have an eclectic art- ist like Yogi begin this year’s series because he is part of the new frontier of mountain festivals like Wanderlust in Colorado.
“We would love to one day have a boutique Wan- derlust festival here in Jackson,” Gagliardi said. “This year, we feel like each one of our bands is as good as the last.”
As this year’s opener, Yogi pairs a budding music
career with his appetite for self-expression in many forms: art, yoga, philosophy. Yogi recently released his second album, titled “Pilgrimage.” It chronicles his spiritual and physical journey through moun- tainous regions of India as well as his emotions fol- lowing the deaths of several mentors.
His music is a mixture of genres infused with a deep spirituality, tied together by his rhythms and energetic demeanor. Such is his approach to life: By blending seemingly disparate forms, Yogi has found a way to express his wide interests.
“The many things that I do are not at all at odds with each other,” Yogi said. “Things in contrast are not necessarily in conflict. I think I have the abil- ity to be single-pointed in my expression without being myopic.”
Yogi came to spiritual consciousness by way of turmoil.
Growing up in San Francisco, he was a normal kid until family trouble set in. He started hang- ing out with a rough crowd that was active in street rap parties in the city. He began tagging public sites and dabbling with drugs. He even landed in jail.
“My Dad was the one who first introduced me to yoga at 17,” Yogi said. “I started to realize what I was creating in my life and that I needed to change it.”
Yoga ushered his transformation and propelled him toward a life of positive self expression.
“I’m an optimist now,” Yogi said. “I have a lot of stock in the future and potential of the hu- man race.”