OUT OF THEIR SHELL
Turtle Island String Quartet takes the art of improvisation to new heights with Coltrane concert
Friday, March 12, 2010
By Chris Waddington
Can you snap your fingers and sway to a string quartet? Jazz purists and classical snobs used to laugh at the notion. Then, in 1985, the Turtle Island String Quartet began to do the unlikely, creating swinging, improvised music that incorporated delta blues, Indian ragas, Celtic fiddle techniques, be-bop harmonies and, yes, a bit of Franz Joseph Haydn — the witty, 18th century Austrian who established an enduring classical tradition by writing for two violins, a cello and a viola.
Along the way, Turtle Island has collected two Grammy Awards, won praise from superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma and collaborated with host of genre-busting artists, including jazz reedman Paquito D’Rivera, guitarist Leo Kottke, the Brazilian guitar duo of Sergio and Odair Assad, and the classically trained Ying Quartet.
Turtle Island will perform tonight at Loyola University, in a program drawn from their 2007 Telarc CD: “A Love Supreme: The Music of John Coltrane.”
“People love to create categories, to divide things into high and low art in order to claim superiority over others, but music is so innocent of that,” said Quartet founder David Balakrishnan. “When you look under the blanket, you’ll see that there have always been connections. That’s why a Bill Monroe bluegrass tune sounds eerily like a South Indian karnatic raga.”
The group also bridges a generational divide. Its founding members — violinist and composer Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer — are both in their 50s: Violist Jeremy Kittel and violinist Mads Tolling are still in their 20s.
“When we started, there wasn’t much precedent for the kind of cross-genre work that we do, but for the group’s younger members this kind of fusion seems like the most natural thing in the world,” Balakrishnan said. “IPods and the Internet have changed the musical landscape for young artists. They don’t have to do what I did growing up in Los Angeles. Back then, if I wanted to hear something different, it meant digging through record bins for obscure LPs.”
The Coltrane program at Loyola will show off the quartet’s most distinctive feature, Balakrishnan said. “All of us are improvisers and we approach Coltrane’s work that manner — not as classical players trying something new for a change. We’ve had Coltrane’s music echoing in our heads for years.”
On “A Love Supreme” — which earned a Grammy in 2008 — Balakrishnan’s deft arrangements suggest the propulsive force of Coltrane’s combos, and include transcriptions of the saxophonist’s incantatory solos. They also leave room for the four strings to unleash their own ideas.
On the recording, the music unfolds seamlessly, in fiery accounts that underscore the unique nature of the Turtle Island sound: bluegrass “chop” techniques, slap pizzicato, and passages in which the cellist conjures walking bass lines or drives home the rhythm by drumming on the body of his instrument.
“We sound different than any other string quartet,” Balakrishan said. “But for everything that’s new in our work, we’re also laying claim to something that was lost long ago. People forget that Bach and Beethoven were both improvisers, that early string players were expected to improvise, too. That’s exactly where the music is headed again.”
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Chris Waddington is a contributing writer to The Times-Picayune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Turtle Island String Quartet
What: The Grammy-award-winning string ensemble will showcase the musical legacy of saxophonist John Coltrane — and its own, unique approach to improvisation.
Where: Roussel Hall, Loyola University, 6363 St. Charles Ave.
When: Tonight at 7:30.
Tickets: $25. Call 504.865.2074 or www.loyno.edu.