String quartet brings improvisation to Scottsdale
by Dolores Tropiano – Nov. 17, 2010 01:41 PM
Special for the Republic
Cellist Mark Summer never wanted any part of a string quartet.
“I came from Cleveland, Ohio, where playing in a string quartet was fun, but players can get weird with one another,” said Summer, 52, a founding member of Turtle Island Quartet.
“It’s kind of legendary, because they are in each other’s faces all the time.”
After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music and performing with several groups, a morning meditation directed Summer to the San Francisco area, where he was invited by David Balakrishnan to help form a quartet that featured improvisation, original music and what Summer describes as “an intoxicating mix of styles.”
Summer signed on.
That was 25 years ago.
Turtle Island Quartet will celebrate its silver anniversary with a performance at 8 p.m. Friday at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.
The name of the crossover group refers to Native American folk mythology and is a creative way of saying that the quartet plays a musical repertoire that includes classical, jazz, rock, blues, New Age, swing and Latin music – all with what Summer describes as an American accent.
The group is made up of Summer, Balakrishnan (violin), Mads Tolling (violin), and Jeremy Kittel (viola). Many of the group’s compositions are written by Balakrishnan, who has a bachelor’s degree in music composition from UCLA and a master’s degree in music composition from Antioch University West-San Francisco.
Tolling and Kittel are the youngest members of the group. Tolling graduated in 2003 from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and Kittel graduated from the University of Michigan and received his master’s in jazz violin in 2007 from the Manhattan School of Music.
Though most of their Friday set will be determined backstage just before the performance, Summer said they are sure to play pieces from their latest Jimi Hendrix tribute album “Have You Ever Been . . . ?” and songs with special guest mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall.
“Americans love their things all mixed up,” Summer said. “They love the idea of a string quartet coming out and playing Bach and then John Calderon. It is a really novel thing.”
In 2006 and 2008, the group won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album. It has recorded more than a dozen albums for major labels as well as soundtracks for movies, TV and radio, including “All Things Considered,” and “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Besides the love of improvisation, Summer says the quartet has the ability to cover all the roles of a jazz ensemble and other groups, imitating the textures of various instruments, including percussion sections.
The result is music that excites audiences.
“We are playing our instruments to create a groove,” Summer said. “Everything is groove-based. It is music that makes you tap your toe and wiggle your feet.”
It also might keep the man who once had an aversion to string quartets committed to Turtle Island for years to come.
“As a cellist, there is no more amazing gig than Turtle Island, because I get to play this great music that David is writing,” Summer said.