Soft lights, an auditorium full of music aficionados and a stage. The Turtle Island Quartet was back for the third time at the Staller Center for the Arts on Saturday, Nov. 17 and this time, Grammy nominated jazz singer Tierney Sutton performed with the group.
As the murmurs died down, it was time to turn up the music as David Balakrishnan, Mark Summer, Mateusz Smoczynski and Benjamin von Gutzeit took to the stage. After a gentle bow, the group opened with its arrangement of “Wapango” by Paquito D’Rivera. The harmony of each stringed instrument and Summer’s improvisational mastery of cello—pizzicato, set the stage for what would be an evening of “Poets and Prayers.”
“String quartets are rather interesting in that unlike a mixed ensemble like a jazz ensemble-saxophone, piano, bass and drums, we all play the same instrument in different sizes,” Summers said.
The evening, aptly called “Poets and Prayers,” was a confluence of different jazz composers and their musical brilliance interpreted through the instrumentation of the violin, viola and cello and the vocal delivery of Sutton.
“As jazz string players we are often imitating the sound of a human voice and now while playing with a singer it gives us the opportunity to imitate how she does her phrasing,” Summer said.
Sutton’s unique jazz vocals lent a spiritual aura to the evening. Her often high-pitched songs, coupled with softer variations, effortlessly flowed with the musician’s bows.
From John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell and Bobby McFerrin arrangements, the quintet took each musical piece and put its signature spin to it. Sutton’s vocal variations mimicked the rapid transitions of the musical instruments, making her part of the music instead of a voice to the instruments.
The quartet’s newest members, Smoczynski and Gutzeit, were quick to match the expertise of Balakrishnan and Summers.
“Every time there’s a membership change, it brings fresh energy into the group but also a different perspective-each member has slightly different take on chamber music, and everybody’s got their own personal different loves and jazz musicians and style of music,” Summer said.
Smoczynski transformed his viola into a ukulele, and also re-arranged Sutton’s own musical piece by experimenting with harmonies and solos. Polished musician Gutzeit arranged “Softly as a Morning Sunrise” by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II.
“We are really the first string quartet to figure out how to be our own rhythm section so we can cover jazz, blues, fiddle music and be the band, create the rhythm internally very convincingly,” Summer said.
The evening’s musical journey imbued love, loss, hope and faith into each piece. Tierney’s heartfelt rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” was evocative of the lyrics that Mitchell had written about the daughter she had given up for adoption and later reconnected with.
Founding member David Balakrishnan’s original arrangement of “Voice of the River” was inspired by Sufi poet Hafiz. Balakrishnan’s Indian blood has inspired many of the quartet’s arrangements to uniquely interpret music, often times sprinkling the pieces with classical Indian notes and ragas. His work has won him two Grammy awards and accolades across the world. The quartet’s love for collaboration has sparked new ideas, creative techniques and lasting friendships. Tierney’s involvement with the quartet took almost seven years in the making.
“We are like a bipolar string quartet-trying to reach in equal parts to both sides of the brain,” Balakrishnan said about the musical collaboration with Sutton for “Poets and Prayers.”
Summer’s rocker past and love for the classics, like The Beatles, inspired him to arrange George Harrison’s “Within You Without You.” The classical Indian music rhythm and interpretations of the stringed instruments of the violin and viola were uniquely structured, and Sutton’s voice took on the melodic raga that largely make up the piece. From pizzicatos, vocal mimicry, rearrangements and harmonies, the Turtle Island Quartet brought unique musical treats to the two-hour event.
To be part of “Poets and Prayers” on this evening was to be part of classic chamber music interpreted in the 21-century parlance. Bobby McFerrin wrote in his piece, “Ladeo,” “A song becomes a thousand songs;” this evening was just that.