Jay Blakesberg -The Turtle Island Quartet brings its interpretations of Jimi Hendrix tunes to Sacramento State on Wednesday.
Roundup: Turtle Island Quartet at CSUS
Friday, Mar. 25, 2011
The Turtle Island Quartet takes a different approach to the music of Hendrix – the four-piece string quartet approach – when it performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Sac State.
The classical-jazz fusion trendsetters have a special affinity for Hendrix. The quartet’s latest release, “Have You Ever Been …?,” interprets Hendrix’s rock legacy into the classic string quartet form, opening with a four-song suite and closing with four more tunes (after an original “Tree of Life” interval).
Co-founders David Balakrishnan and Matt Summer have a keen appreciation of the guitarist’s musical prowess. “The whole idea was to showcase Hendrix as a composer,” Summer said in a recent telephone interview from his Marin home. The cello player arranged and performed Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” a highlight of the set.
“What wasn’t hard about it was (the fact that) I play electric guitar, so I knew what he was doing,” Summer said of his task of translating the tune from guitar to cello. “The sounds of an electric guitar are a little bit harsh to me, but I have this beautiful cello that I can play the notes on. When I went to work on ‘Little Wing,’ I was listening to Hendrix and his guitar and his voice and his drums, and I wanted a way to synthesize all that and to make it sound not classical but true to its style.
“The idea is to give the listening ear enough information,” he said. “With enough care and style, you can make it sound really right. It’s an intimate dance to get all the parts together.”
The idea for “Have You Ever Been …?” was violinist Balakrishnan’s and can be traced to two Hendrix concerts he attended as a teenager at the Los Angeles Forum in 1969 and ’70. Within days, he was playing the tunes on his violin.
“David’s more of a hard-rock guy, at least in terms of how he grew up, than I,” Summer said. “I’m more a Beatles, Michael Jackson pop guy.”
Summer taught himself to play drums and guitar but studied piano, then cello. “I kept them very separate,” he said. “Cello was always serious.”
Summer joined Balakrishnan to form the Turtle Island String Quartet in 1985. The original foursome also included violinist Darol Anger and violist Laurie Moore. Its current lineup includes Mads Tolling on violin and Jeremy Kittel on viola. The band officially dropped “String” from its name – in North America – with the 2007 release of “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane.”
“In the United States, a string quartet is sometimes a harder sale,” Summer said. “In Europe, our agent asked if we could keep the ‘String’ in. Our contemporaries – the Emerson Quartet, the Kronos Quartet – even if they had string in their name, they didn’t use it.”
Summer said he expects the group will “pretty much play the entire recording,” which means that in addition to the Hendrix tunes “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland),” “House Burning Down,” “1983 … a Merman I Should Turn To Be,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Gypsy Eyes,” “Hey Joe,” “Little Wing” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the program will include John McLaughlin’s “To Bop or Not To Be” and Balakrishnan’s “Tree of Life,” a suite that integrates classical, soul and Indian music from the composer’s background.
“I’ve come to the place where it’s all just great music to me,” Summer said. “It’s beautiful and interesting and intricate. The complexity of sound that you get when you put four members of the violin family together … it’s … an experience.
“It’s one thing to listen to us, but to watch us, the physicality of what we do, it’s great theater. It’s an elegant, intricate dance.”
Turtle Island Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Capistrano Hall at California State University, Sacramento. $10-$25. (916) 278-4323.
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