“Have You Ever Been…” Turtle Island Quartet Plays The Music of JIMI HENDRIX And The Music Of DAVID BALKRISHNAN
Gary Eskow December 25th, 2010
David Balakrishan has a problem with the Turtle Island Quartet. Well, not really. The group, which he founded a quarter of a century ago, has won a pair of Grammy Awards in the last several years and their latest release “Have You Ever Been…?” is amassing critical praise. Robert Friedrich, who tracked, mixed, and mastered the project at Skywalker Sound, has been nominated for a Grammy award.
TIQ was formed, in part, as a place for Balakrishan- a mind-bendingly capable fiddle player- to hone his craft as a composer. Frustrated by the box “classical” string quartets were stuffed in, performing masterworks by composers whose works stood outside the popular stream that formed a part of his musical DNA, Balakrishnan sought out players who could straddle both worlds.
Over the years he’s managed a shifting group of musicians (save for cellist Mark Summer, a band mate since the git go) who can read anything placed before them and also have the ability to improvise in multiple styles at the drop of the hat. That capacity has allowed Balakrishnan to write detailed sections and line them up alongside simple charts that flourish under the group’s care. Intoxicating though it is, there’s a danger to this method and Balakrishnan knows it.
“You can put a lead sheet in front of TIQ and we can play for 10 minutes,” he says. “Part of our thing is that we have the ability to sound like a rhythm section, so we can play something like Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” without having to bring in a drummer or bass player.
“We’ll take a tune and start out with the cello playing bass, the violist comping, one of the violins playing chop style and the other improvising around the melody, and then shift roles over time.
“The problem lies in the fact that no matter how good we handle the task, we’re basically imitating other forms of music. If we’re not careful it’s possible that TIQ could end up as an inferior sounding cover band! The key is to go back and forth between the pop, or jazz, concept and the traditional string quartet model. ”
Ok, that’s clear: because it accommodates the interplay of counterpoint and harmony (perhaps the most fundamental aspect of “classical” music) so well, and the instruments have a pronounced vocal quality, the string quartet is often called the most perfectly balanced and expressive of all musical units. Not exactly what Jimi had in mind when he wrote “Stone Free.” Hendrix made sure to give his bass player and drummer pastures to roam around in, but the show belonged to him. A deft exchange of material among the three instruments wasn’t a part of the formula.
“Right!” says Balakrishan. “Hendrix is primal. Part of what we did on this CD was go there for a bit. “House Burning Down” and “Voodoo Child” are examples. Even in “Have You Ever Been” and “1983… A Merman I Should Turn To Be,” which feature arrangements that are more in the traditional string quartet style, our playing is totally grounded in American vernacular phrasing.
“Some players mistake overplaying as energy. This is especially true when classical players try to cross over and play popular music when that’s not part of who they are musically. They often play loud and with exaggerated vibrato, or over emphasize the minor third, which can sound artificial and annoying (*). Hendrix was loud, but his phrasing is beautiful and he played with a great dynamic range. We went for the beautiful legato side on this record.”
(*Good point: check out BB King’s phrasing on the classic “Live at the Regal” album. His thirds are always bent and sustained in context, never called up by rote).
Then there’s the matter of register to consider. The Renaissance lute composer John Dowland wrote tons of songs, mostly for high voice. Listen to the great English tenor Peter Pears’ recordings with Julian Bream and you’ll hear how effective it is to separate the register of the voice from the instrument that accompanies it.
Jimi, of course, couldn’t have cared less about this. Or maybe he did; his performance practice, which mainly consisted of him answering his vocal licks with guitar parts, kept the problem at bay. Did Balakrishan spend much time considering the issue of register?
“Absolutely. I changed keys to fit the music to the instruments. Jimi tuned his guitar down a half step routinely, by the way. That gave us permission to change keys! The important thing to understand is that my job is to try and re-imagine the music, as we did on “Love Supreme,” our tribute to John Coltrane. Again, we don’t want to run the risk of becoming a cover band by copping every lick.
“Another point regarding register is that we had to accept that a string quartet is never going to get the low end that the electric bass, kick drums and tom toms brought to the Jimi Hendrix Experience records. We did consider using electronics to bring some low end into the mix, but ultimately rejected the idea. Our mission is to be a string quartet, to honor that ensemble, and make whatever music we play work with its confines.”
Still on a mission, still looking to stretch, David Balakrisnan looks forward to writing more music for the Turtle Island Quartet, but he’s also looking outside it as a composer. “I’ve been writing for other players and groups. Without the ballast that TIQ provides I have to prove my worth solely as a writer to other people. I welcome the challenge!”