As many of you may know, September 9th, 2009 is an auspicious date for Beatles fans. That’s the day when the entire Beatles catalog is re-released in gloriously re-mastered digital sound, including a set of legendary mono-only releases that most of us haven’t heard before. This got me thinking about my long history with the Fab Four, and their vast and continuing influence on me, both a musician and in my role as a founding member of Turtle Island.
It may seem a bit daft for me to conjure up influences from the “Fabs” as George Harrison referred to his former band mates. After all, I studied with hard-core classical cello teachers in LA from the age of 9, and graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music, played in the Winnipeg symphony for three seasons, and still study the Bach Suites. However, I got my start as a musician playing by ear on our old upright piano, making up tunes, and generally wishing to be a pop star. I taught myself guitar and played in a rock band aptly called “The Plague”. I have lived a musical double life to this day, working hard on my classical and jazz cello chops while still finding inspiration from the group that help get me through the so many hard times growing up.
I remember my first exposure to a Beatles recording. My father brought home Sr. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since he only listened to classical music, and tended to turn it up to “11”, this was big news. I had heard the Beatles at my cousin’s house, and remember the cartoon show, which had actors impersonating their voices, but which did feature lots of their early tunes. However, I think I responded to Sr. Pepper’s almost as if it were a classical crossover album, what with all the French horns, clarinets, strings, as well as the more exotic sitar and tabla. I remember that when I heard the cacophonous climax to “A Day In The Life”, I was thrilled, but mostly terrified. I remember having a similar reaction to my dad playing Orffs’ Carmina Burana at a deafening volume.
Later, when Turtle Island was formed in late 1985, we spent hours jamming on jazz arrangements written mostly by David Balakrishan. One day, I spontaneously started playing the intro to “A Day In The Life” and the band picked up the tune and eventually we inserted it into the middle of Balakrishnan’s “Skylife” in concert. Many years later, I arranged John Lennon’s beautiful tune “Because” for string octet to record and perform with the Ying Quartet on “4 + Four”, a recording that garnered us our first Grammy in 2005. It was always my fondest dream to record a Beatles tune, and I’m very happy with the way that arrangement came out.
Being able to appreciate the rock and pop elements of Beatles music, and to incorporate some of their energy and vitality into what I do has always been one of my highest priorities. From the beginning, my role in Turtle Island has been to drive the band, almost like a drummer. As the other members of the quartet switch roles as soloists, playing chord tones, and playing percussive parts we call the “chop”, I am most often the one constant element, playing bass lines, and incorporating rhythmic and percussive elements that involve hitting the fingerboard and side on the cello, as well as left hand hammer-ons from guitar techniques.
You could say that I’m probably the first cellist whose playing has been significantly influenced by drummer Ringo Starr. His rock steadiness and feel helped tremendously to give the Beatles a solidity that is often taken for granted and I have taken that to heart, embracing my singular role. I take a certain amount of pride each night as David Balakrishnan introduces me saying “on cello, bass, and drums.”