Classical music out of its shell

You can’t quibble with success. The Turtle Island Quartet, which will perform Sunday at The Egg, wil

You can’t quibble with success. The Turtle Island Quartet, which will perform Sunday at The Egg, will celebrate 25 years this fall of taking audiences on journeys from folk to new age jazz, all within the context of a string quartet. Two Grammy Awards — “4 + Four” (with the Ying Quartet) (Telarc, 2006) and “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane” (Telarc, 2008) — substantiate the group’s classical crossover appeal.

“We’re honoring the rich tradition of classical music but also the groove elements of pop music that have a way into your heart,” said cellist Mark Summer, one of Turtle’s co-founders.

Actually, the quartet, which includes violinist Mads Tolling, violist Jeremy Kittel and violinist/co-founder and composer/arranger David Balakrishnan, almost never play the usual fare.

“We did play Mozart for a museum installation and an arrangement with some other guys of Milhaud’s ‘Creation of the World’ and then Mendelssohn’s Octet,” Summer said laughing. “But we’ve never done the standard repertoire. We do love to listen to 20th century music. We’re very open.”

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For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman’s review of this show, click here.

The quartet’s concert, which will feature mandolinist Mike Marshall, is typical of what the Turtles have become known for: original music from Balakrishnan’s pen that mixes bluegrass with jazz, classical and Indian influences; Marshall’s own compositions; Irish and American fiddle tunes with Kittel, a Scottish fiddling champ; a duet between Summer and Marshall, who will play on a mandocello (a hybrid of mandolin and cello), of Summer’s hit “Julie-O”; Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonte’s “Loro”; and a tribute to John Coltrane with Stanley Clarke’s “Song to John.”

This is the first time Marshall, an old friend of Balakrishnan’s, will play an entire concert with the Turtles.

“He has a wonderful sense of groove,” Summer said. “It’s a great meeting of minds.”

This “Crossroads” program, which is one of three the Turtles are touring with this season, reflects the inspiration of what got the quartet together: The desire to move beyond the world of Beethoven and Bartok yet still somehow incorporate the music’s structure and form with elements of other musical styles.

The idea was not a new one in the 1980s. Summer, who had received his master’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, had been playing for three years in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra but was frustrated with the classical music scene, he said.

He loved jazz and remembered how excited he’d been at school when another cellist had arranged a quartet in the jazz idiom, he said. Things changed when he met violinist Darol Anger during a Winnipeg folk festival gig. Anger had similar discontent with the classical repertoire, but when he told Summer he was from California, where Summer had family, Summer decided to quit the orchestra and move home.

Recovering from perfection

“I felt like I was recovering from the perfection of classical music,” Summer said. “Moving was a great chance to return and connect with players. San Francisco was a hotbed of mixed styles.”

Meanwhile, Balakrishnan, who lived in the Bay area, couldn’t find musicians who could play his music, which required not only great classical technique but the ability to improvise in the jazz style. The three musicians eventually met and, with violist Laurie Moore, began to work out ways to integrate the two styles. Anger gave the group its name, which comes from Native American mythology. Turtle Island is the name of the North American continent.

“We hacked about in the beginning on how to bring the music alive: how much to write, how much to improvise, how much to use chord changes or embellish things,” Summer said.

Balakrishnan did the arrangements and often found connections.

“Coltrane’s long lines are similar to Shostakovich’s,” Summer said.

But a jazz combo or rock group includes a rhythm section. To simulate a bass or percussion, Summer uses his cello as both: the cello lays down bass lines as a bottom counterpoint and he taps the instrument rhythmically. There are a few other extended techniques but the principle is for the four players to create independent lines and maintain the rhythmic elements so important in jazz and pop, he said.

“We try to create a groove,” he said.

The Turtles are faithful to the music so people can recognize the tune.

Best of all worlds

“We do the music we love. It’s the best of all worlds. It’s also a good way for people to be introduced to a string quartet and to these kinds of music styles,” Summer said.

Balakrishnan still does most of the Turtle’s original tunes and arrangements, which eventually branched out from jazz, rock and folk to include bluegrass, funk, be-bop, R & B, music of Latin America and India, and American fiddle music. The group, which is still based in the San Francisco Bay area, has worked over the years with such stars as clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, pianist Kenny Barron, the Ying Quartet and several major orchestras. They’ve recorded more than 15 discs. The most recent is “Have You Ever Been” (Telarc, 2010), which includes Balakrishnan’s “Tree of Life” and arrangements of Jimi Hendrix’s music.

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