The Turtle Island Quartet is set up like your standard–issue string quartet: – two volins, viola and cello.
This, however, isn’t a classical music chamber group. These four guys, each a virtuoso on his own, combine jazz, swing, European gypsy music, funk and even rock ‘n’ roll. Improvisation is a key element in every performance.
The Grammy–winning group’s latest album, Have You Ever Been ...?, gives the Turtle Island treatment to the music of Jimi Hendrix. It’s the followup to their tribute to John Coltrane and other giants of modern jazz, A Love Supreme.
Violinist David Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer are founding members of Turtle Island; the current lineup also includes Mads Tolling (violin) and Jeremy Kittel (viola). The group – originally called Turtle Island String Quartet – performs at the Lucas Theatre Friday, Oct. 22, joined by Mike Marshall (mandolin) and Cyrus Chestnut (piano), composers and players who are also known far and wide for their impatience with established musical boundaries.
Summer doesn’t just bow his cello – he uses it as a standup bass, a pizzicato orchestra and a percussion instrument.
You began as a classical cellist. How long did it take you to discover that you could do other things with the instrument?
Mark Summer: It took a long time to figure out that I could do some of the things I was dreaming about doing - on the piano, the guitar, the drums – on the cello. Because there just wasn’t anybody doing it. And I wasn’t thinking that way. There were a lot of examples of people playing different styles on the violin. But on the cello, I wasn’t aware of it. Later, people came up to me and said “Have you heard Chico Hamilton and Fred Katz?”
I got a job in the Winnepeg Symphony, and while I was there I started listening to jazz violinists, and started playing swing music on the cello. Once you amplify the cello it starts sounding more bass–like, for one thing. I started realizing that if I plucked my cello like a walking bass, it sounded quite a bit like a bass. If I stuck to the C string, mostly, and the G string. And so I parlayed that discovery into a 25–year career with Turtle Island.
Do you remember a feeling of “Hey, this opens a door. I really can do whatever I want with this”?
Mark Summer: Yeah, and I remember being really happy, a lot happier. Because I was really miserable in this orchestra. I was feeling incredible pressure, because I’m such a perfectionist anyway. When I discovered I could use the instrument as a percussion instrument, that was a neat moment.
With all respect, was there a point where you thought “This is more than a parlor trick”?
Mark Summer: We talk a lot about that with Turtle Island, the parlor trick aspect. We talk about it because we’re aware that we’re doing these techniques that are very bare–bones. You want to give the impression that drums are happening but really, they’re not. We’re hitting the instruments and doing these percussion techniques on the violin and viola, but we don’t think of it that way. It’s like all kinds of music where people are trying to create rhythm by any means possible.
The music that we play is the music that we love, and the music that we can invest our hearts and souls in.
For instance, Jimi Hendrix. In another group’s hands, that might have come off differently. The reason it works so well for Turtle Island is because David saw Jimi Hendrix as a teenager, and he brought the idea in. He said “Let’s listen to this and see if there’s something beyond parlor tricks, imitating a rock band.” He approached it from the standpoint of Hendrix’s compositions, and transcribed his many, many guitar overdubs.
What surprised you about Hendrix’s writing? “Little Wing,” for example, is so melodically rich.
Mark Summer: “Little Wing” I didn’t know all that well, but I’d heard it and I just thought it was a beautiful tune. It’s not just a solo guitar, his whole band plays on that tune. For me, the challenge was how do you make it sound big and full, and just be one instrument?
I was more surprised about the music from Electric Ladyland. He did a lot of techniques of recording that resulted in these really rich textures of guitars. I think I was just impressed with the intricacies of what he did.
Why did you drop the word “string” from the group’s name?
Mark Summer: The actual, practical reason was the record company asked us to. But we had talked about it. In Germany, our agent asked us to keep it. Because in Germany if you say “Hey, you want to go hear a string quartet, they’re playing this groovy music?” it’s not a hard sell. It’s very normal for a family to go out to hear a concert together.
In the United States, first of all teenagers don’t do anything with their parents. College students aren’t going to all that many concerts either.
We’d won a Grammy for a recording we did with the Ying Quartet, and they’re not called the Ying String Quartet. And we realized all of a sudden that all of the groups that were really in prominence, that we admired ... Kronos, the Emerson Quartet ... I argued that we should just be known as Turtle Island. Then, there’s a little bit more ambiguity. And in this country I think that’s good. But in Europe, it would be bad! So we’re the Turtle Island Quartet.
And we’ve played so much jazz that “Turtle Island Quartet” sounds like a jazz group sometimes.
What’s the program for the Savannah concert?
Mark Summer: We come out and we do two pieces from the Have You Ever Been ...? Suite, and then Cyrus comes out and we do some numbers with him. Then we play with Mike, and then we play all together. We take an intermission and then we come back and do some with each of them.
It gives us an opportunity to play as a quartet, quintet and sextet, depending on which piece we’re playing.
Are we calling this “jazz chamber music”? Do you play any straight classical pieces?
Mark Summer: Our Grammys are for “classical crossover.” I used to say we play every kind of music but classical music, but that’s not true. We play some classical music, but it’s mostly arranged in some way. This concert, we won’t be playing any classical music. We’ll play a piece of David’s called “Groove in the Louve,” which has elements of classical composition, but ends up being kind of an homage to Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunesia.”
We end the program all together playing “Crossroads,” the Robert Johnson tune that Eric Clapton made famous.
It’s definitely a lot of driving, rhythmic music. We take a lot of pains to make good use of the string quartet the way people like to hear string quartets play counterpoint. The great contrapuntal writing associated with Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Haydn. But employed to serve a groove.
Turtle Island Quartet
With Cyrus Chestnut and Mike Marshall
Where: Lucas Theatre for the Arts, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22