On their most recent CD, A Love Supreme, the Turtle Island Quartet dropped the word “String” from the middle of their name.
“You noticed that!” David Balakrishnan laughed when I called him a few weeks ago. “It made the name a little less cumbersome and it was in keeping with just about every other string quartet in the field, such as the Emerson Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Julliard Quartet.
“It’s weird because when the group started, we were much more determined to explain that yes, believe it or not, here was a string quartet that could play jazz. We had to define it so people understood what they were going to hear. It’s still an unusual thing, but not nearly as much as it was then. Now there are young players coming up playing alternative styles and others in the field who are going in this direction. So it made sense that we didn’t need that middle syllable.”
Balakrishnan formed the genre-blending group in 1985, and brings them to the American Theatre Wednesday night for a program with jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris called “The Divine Duke.” The title was chosen because of its emphasis on the sacred music Duke Ellington wrote late in his life.
“Stefon is a great jazz musician,” he said, “who’s also looking to integrate the classical aesthetic. So we look for ways to connect theme-wise without limiting it. I’ve had a wonderful time exploring this particular aspect of Duke Ellington’s oeuvre. I found myself really falling in love with his music of that period. This music was played in churches and it’s got a serious spiritual bent to it.
“We’re going to cover others, but that’s the main element of it. We’re also going to do a version of Chick Corea’s ‘Senor Mouse’ and some original material from both sides. There’s a cool piece written by Dave Brubeck called ‘The Duke’ that we’re going to play.”
Most classical musicians spent their formative years perfecting their technique by playing music exactly as it was written and consequently are uncomfortable with improvisation. Balakrishnan and his bandmates, however, were attracted to the other musical forces swirling around them when they were growing up:
“The people in this group are four musicians who, in childhood, became attracted to playing off the page and developed their jazz playing at the same time they developed their classical playing. Though you wouldn’t call it jazz when you’re twelve; you’re more into playing rock-n-roll and blues. My generation was a different time—I was listening to Led Zeppelin and wanting to do that, and it turned out the violin was just perfect because it had all the sound qualities that a guitar had, as long as you knew how to play that way.
“It’s not so much that we’re classically trained crossing over to play improvised music; it’s more that we developed both hand-in-hand and therefore they’re part of our way of expressing, at a deep level, on string instruments.”
He began to realize the nontraditional possibilities available for his instrument as a teenager when he first heard Sugarcane Harris playing violin with bluesman John Mayall and Jerry Goodman wailing in the jazz-rock band, The Flock.
“I bought a record [by The Flock] when I was about fourteen,” he said, “and he had hair down to his butt. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ I was very clear; it was like a sea change for me. I was improvising on guitar and just starting to listen to John Mayall and these things. When I saw Jerry Goodman—more than Sugarcane Harris, he fit what I could imagine looking like. I thought, wow, girls would really go for that! I might actually get popular!
“At the same time I was studying classical music with a very serious teacher who was in the L. A. Philharmonic. I remember he wasn’t all that thrilled with that part of my desire to do. It happened early enough in my progression that I wasn’t faced with having formed a really strong adult personality as a classical player and then having to struggle to release all that built-up intensity trying to reach a level of quality. One of the hardest things about improvising is you have to let go of how you sound, especially in the beginning. You have to go back to sounding like a baby, and the violin sounds really ugly when you do that!
“You’re going for a way that it becomes a part of your personal language. It’s risky and yet it’s very fulfilling.”
Balakrishnan has worked both sides of the musical fence ever since.
“My first rock band was called Moon Fleet,” he said. “It was a glitter rock band in the 1970s—New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, David Bowie. But when Mahavishnu came out with John McLaughlin and Jerry Goodman, everybody in the band got so blown away that we completely changed and tried to imitate the sound of that band. That’s when I realized that the language that McLaughlin was speaking in was much more developed than mine. I was playing basic blues improvising; he was doing something altogether different. As I got older and studied more serious composition in college, I got into the more sophisticated style of fusion jazz and later pure jazz.”
Drawing on that same wellspring of sophistication and energy, Turtle Island continues to forge new directions twenty three years after its formation. And it is in those directions that David Balakrishnan believes serious music is moving.
“When I was in college in the ‘70s,” he explained, “it was still the time in classical music where the cutting edge was all the non-tonal, twelve-tone serialism things. By that point minimalism had made its appearance and was starting to change things, but still, when I was studying it was made very clear to me that anything that smacked of tonality was childish, sentimental claptrap.
“Now, so many years later, that was just like a period in music history as opposed to a natural evolution where things were going to end up. It didn’t turn out that way. Look at all the music that’s coming into play that’s opening doors for audiences to really connect with it and still have the integrity of classical music.”
Turtle Island Quartet with Stefon Harris
Wednesday, January 30 – 7:30 pm
The American Theatre
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.