Turtle Island Quartet to salute Jimi Hendrix and Charles Darwin on the same album. (Copyright Jay Blakesberg)
By Mike Joyce
Friday, December 3, 2010
TURTLE ISLAND QUARTET
Here’s something few groups could pull off: coupling an ingeniously arranged tribute to Jimi Hendrix with an original string ensemble suite honoring the life and work of Charles Darwin.
Yes, musically speaking, it helps to be a little bipolar, says Turtle Island Quartet co-founder David Balakrishnan. Of course, being in a Grammy-winning group known for its audacious, category-defying repertoire doesn’t hurt, either.
The Bay Area quartet, which is appearing at George Mason University on Saturday night, has been throwing curves at listeners for a quarter-century. Over nearly 20 recordings, the ensemble has reconfigured and revitalized the music of Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, Oliver Nelson, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and other American composers, while zigzagging across classical, jazz, pop, folk, Latin and world-beat turf.
Now the quartet has artfully linked the legacies of Hendrix and Darwin on “Have You Ever Been . . .?,” its latest release. Making an album primarily devoted to exploring Hendrix’s creativity as a composer was a logical step for the ensemble, which is made up of Balakrishnan, fellow violinist Mads Tolling, cellist Mark Summer and violist Jeremy Kittel.
As a teenager growing up in the Los Angeles area, Balakrishnan, 56, saw the rock guitar titan perform twice, which, he says, changed his life. In fact, looking back on those concerts now, his voice still rises a notch.
“I was a young guy playing the violin, then falling in love with Hendrix and the rock-and-roll thing and figuring out how to play it on the violin,” he says.
More than anything else, what appealed to him was how Hendrix laced his music with so many intriguing lines and contrasts.
“He had a real sweet, expressive lyrical side,” Balakrishnan says, “and we all know how edgy he could be. Those Hendrix chords, the sharp nines, stretch you in this major/minor way that’s so ecstatic, and I picked up on that as a kid. I really fell in love with that.”
So much so, Balakrishnan says, that catching Hendrix in concert “was probably the singular force that created a musician out of me – that falling-in-love experience, head over heels.”
Open to all kinds of music – classical, rock, jazz, Indian and bluegrass – Balakrishnan says he knew what he liked early on, “but I really didn’t know who I was.” Although solving that puzzle would take a long time, the fundamental concept that gave birth to Turtle Island – the group’s name derives from Native American folklore – allowed him to connect a lot of dots.
Staying true to the European string quartet tradition was key, Balakrishnan says. “Yet the members of the group would have to have equal grounding in jazz technique and improvisation; that’s what set us apart. And for me, personally, a compositional aspect was very important.”
The violinist spent a few years writing string pieces that were never performed by an ensemble. Instead, he overdubbed all the parts. Then somewhat miraculously, according to Balakrishnan, the right players began showing up – Summer, violinist Darol Anger and violist Laurie Moore, for starters.
“You see jazz violinists, but you rarely see a jazz cellist. That’s why Mark is so important to the group,” Balakrishnan says. “Right away the sound started to evolve faster than I could have imagined, even though many people were convinced that a string quartet couldn’t possibly swing.” Some people still have a hard time with that, he says with a laugh. “It’s funny now because swing is one of the things that made our career.”
Two and a half years ago, after watching a film of Hendrix in concert, Balakrishnan began seriously exploring ways to rearrange tunes from the guitarist’s 1968 album “Electric Ladyland.” While pursuing that project, Balakrishnan was also writing “Tree of Life,” a four-movement suite commemorating the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species.”
Balakrishnan realized later that the Hendrix- and Darwin-inspired pieces made for a curious yet complementary fit. As a result, the Darwin tribute appears on “Have You Ever Been . . .?” along with other striking string quartet weaves. (And, yes, Balakrishnan is a big fan of the innovative Kronos Quartet, which helped pave the way for Turtle Island’s excursions into jazz, Hendrix and beyond.)
So what’s next? There’s no lack of inspiration, says Balakrishnan, especially now that the quartet boasts young musicians with their own musical passions. Kittel is a champion fiddler well versed in American and Celtic string-band traditions. Tolling, a native of Denmark, grew up fascinated by the jazz recordings of Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek.
“They’re always bringing us new energy and ideas, so that’s exciting,” Balakrishnan says. “They’re individualists with strong personalities, musically speaking, and we know they need space to breathe in. Playing with them really reinvigorates us.”
On Saturday night at GMU, in addition to saluting Hendrix and Darwin, the quartet will perform pieces composed or arranged by its special guests – pianist Cyrus Chestnut and mandolinist Mike Marshall. Also on tap: Brazilian choromusic, a performance inspired by Cream’s take on “Crossroads,” and holiday music, both cheery and soulful.
“It’s going to be a real party,” Balakrishnan promises, “a silver anniversary party.”
Saturday at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. Show starts at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $22-$44. 703-993-8888 www.gmu.edu/cfa.