Turtle Island String Quartet photographed at The Fox Theater in Oakland, CA April 22, 2010(C)Jay Blakesberg
Something old, something new
By GARY DEMUTH Salina Journal
As a young man, David Balakrishnan was a classical violinist who loved jazz, a bluegrass fiddler who grooved on swing, be-bop, rock music and the music of his father’s native India.
But when it came to forming his own musical identity, the Los Angeles native couldn’t commit to one particular style.
So he decided to combine them all.
“I took my jazz and classical background and started writing music for an imaginary quartet, a quartet that would be equally grounded in jazz and classical music technique,” said Balakrishnan, who in 1985 was completing a master’s degree in music composition at Antioch University West in San Francisco.
At that time, Balakrishnan never expected to find musicians who would have the ability to perform his original compositions.
“They’d have to have jazz chops as much as classical chops,” he said. “Either one could take a whole lifetime to learn.”
Then he met cellist Mark Summer, who not only was an accomplished classical musician (and graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music), but an “amazing improvisationalist,” Balakrishnan said.
Together, the duo formed the Turtle Island Quartet, a San Francisco-based chamber music ensemble that has performed a unique fusion of jazz and classical music for the last quarter of a century, resulting in sold-out concerts throughout the world and Grammy awards in 2006 and 2008 for Best Classical Crossover Album.
The quartet will be in concert Jan. 15 at the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts, 151 S. Santa Fe.
25 years of performing
This concert tour is a celebration of 25 years of Turtle Island Quartet music and will span the scope of their career from their early experimental jazz rhythms to their most recent project, a CD tribute to the music of legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix.
The quartet also is known for their unique string renditions of jazz standards by John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver Nelson and Dave Brubeck.
“I want audiences to recognize the beauty of the string quartet form,” Balakrishnan said. “It’s a form that’s been around for centuries, but it doesn’t mean it can’t transfer to modern culture, too.”
Only Balakrishnan and Summer have been in the quartet for the entire 25 years. While other violinists and viola players have come and gone, Balakrishnan said the frequent turnover ultimately has been good for the ensemble.
“Each player has brought a new style and a new sound,” he said. “The two guys in the group now are younger players who are great musicians.”
The other members of the quartet’s line-up are violinist Mads Tolling, a native of Denmark who moved to the U.S. at age 20 to pursue jazz studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and violist Jeremy Kittel, a University of Michigan graduate who has won numerous awards, including the 2000 U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion and 2006 Detroit Music Awards for outstanding jazz album and jazz composer.
Not afraid to experiment
When Balakrishnan formed the Turtle Island Quartet in 1985, he just wanted to find an ensemble of like-minded musicians who weren’t afraid to experiment and improvise with classical and jazz techniques.
“I just happened to find the right players who were attracted to it and had a willingness to explore it,” he said.
Unexpectedly, the quartet found they had a growing fan base of music fans who appreciated what they were trying to do with musical forms.
“It was such a bi-polar way of playing, but the public picked up on it,” Balakrishnan said. “That allowed us to become successful, more than I ever thought.”
The quartet has released 15 albums and performed music for television and radio programs that have included “The Today Show,” National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”
They also have collaborated with established musicians such as clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, guitarists Leo Kottke and the Assad brothers, pianists Billy Taylor, Kenny Barron and Ramsey Lewis, vocal quartet The Manhattan Transfer, and the Parsons Dance Company.
Turtle Island Quartet has performed several times at the Lied Center in Lawrence, and recently Balakrishnan was commissioned to compose a full-length work for the center. His composition, “The Tree of Life,” will combine theater, dance, poetry, video and performances by Turtle Island Quartet and University of Kansas wind ensemble that focus on sociopolitical issues surrounding evolution.
An always packed house
Tim Van Leer, executive director of the Lied Center, said the Turtle Island Quartet is a unique ensemble that always performs to packed houses whenever they appear at the Lied Center.
“They have an improvisational style within their compositions that appeals to classical music audiences as well as those interested in a jazz point of view,” Van Leer said. “They attract very diverse audiences.”
Balakrishnan hopes audiences leave Turtle Island Quartet concerts with a different view of what a string quartet is capable of performing.
“We have a style that encapsulates so many styles and cultures,” he said. “We want people to think, ‘They’re a string quartet, but these guys can really swing!’ ”
Reporter Gary Demuth can be reached at 822-1405 or by e-mail at email@example.com.