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Turtle Island String Quartet, Strathmore Mansion

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
4 + Four, Turtle Island String Quartet and Ying Quartet (released on February 22, 2005)
available at Amazon
John Coltrane Quartet, A Love Supreme (1965), 2-CD deluxe edition with original album, live version, and alternate takes (released on October 29, 2002)
The Turtle Island String Quartet has been around for 20 years now, but this was the year that the group finally won a Grammy Award, when their new CD with the Ying Quartet, 4 + Four, was chosen as Best Classical Crossover Album. So, Ionarts was there on Wednesday night when the Turtle Islanders played the first of two concerts at the Strathmore Mansion. Their program -- pieces composed or influenced by John Coltrane, around the time of his groundbreaking album A Love Supreme (1965) -- is not one they have recorded yet, although I'm sure that will happen eventually. Perhaps I am writing too much about the crossover phenomenon lately: my feelings about it are well known to regular readers. In the case of a string quartet -- with a few bells and whistles, such as a pedal-controlled amplifier for the cello -- playing arrangements of one of the giants of modern jazz, my reaction is in theory the same. I would much rather listen to the fine, remastered double-album recording of A Love Supreme than to a string quartet's attempt to capture the sound of John Coltrane, and I advise others accordingly. It is impossible to know what Coltrane would have thought of this particular tribute, a white string quartet playing his music for a mostly white audience in a mostly white suburb. I am tempted to think that he would have seen it as the final stage in the theft of black jazz by white audiences, what we might call the ultimate NPR-ization of jazz.

That being said, what the Turtle Islanders do is infectiously alluring, mostly because the music that they choose, particularly in this program, is of such high quality. You could arrange A Love Supreme for accordion and bagpipe and it would probably sound pretty good. The Turtle Island sound is inventive and varied, with the cellist often doubling as jazz string bass and percussion section. A Turtle Island performance bubbles with vitality and fun, and the pleasant jazzy veneer of their sound has immediate appeal. The comment of first violinist David Balakrishnan is telling, that the group may look like a string quartet but "in our minds we're the Miles Davis Quintet of 1959." Well, they are not the Miles Davis Quintet of 1959. When the group had to halt the concert temporarily while violist Mads Tolling went to the green room to look for his score of the next piece, much of the illusion of improvisation vanished, at least for me. For the most part, all four players keep their eyes tightly glued to the page, giving the impression that the music they are making is a historical recreation, rather than something extemporaneous.

The concert began with arrangements of music inspired in various ways by John Coltrane. First, their arrangement of Michael Brecker's Strap Hanging opened with a Mozart-like intro but quickly started to swing. It was a slightly rough start in terms of the group's unity and intonation, but in the second piece -- Oliver Nelson's Yearnin', which is on the 4 + Four CD -- the sound improved. Standards by Miles Davis and Paquita D'Rivera added some Cool and Latin sounds, respectively, to the mix. However, the high point of the concert came with the pieces by Coltrane himself, which began with three short arrangements of smaller tunes. Moment's Notice (on the 1957 Blue Train album) and the well-known Naima (named after Coltrane's first wife and found on Giant Steps) featured the instruments played by their arrangers, cellist Mark Summer and first violinist Balakrishnan, respectively. The same was true of the brief, bebop-fast Countdown (also recorded on Giant Steps), arranged by second violinist Evan Price with a note-for-note transcription of Coltrane's breathless, chattering saxophone improvisation for himself.

The Mansion at StrathmoreThe best of the best, however, was Balakrishnan's transcription -- well, really more of an adaptation -- of Coltrane's spiritual masterpiece, A Love Supreme. It's a meditative work, Coltrane's testament to his spiritual epiphany late in life, and musically rich after he had spent the most productive years of his life playing bebop with Dizzy Gillespie, pioneering the Cool style with Miles Davis (he played on Miles's landmark recording Kind of Blue), and finally forming his own quartet. The piece is in four movements, held together by distinctive musical themes, especially by a trance-inducing ostinato in the bass and other instruments (do-me-do-fa), which like many instrumental jazz melodies, especially in Coltrane's work, sounded with words in the composer's mind. On the 1965 recording, you can hear Coltrane chanting, with that ostinato in the first of the four movements ("Acknowledgment"), the words "a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme." That acknowledgment of a creator's love permeates the work in the form of that ostinato, which comes back in the last movement ("Psalm"). Judging by the audience's hesitation about applauding when the piece was over, I'm not sure how many other listeners other than me had ever heard A Love Supreme before. The best result that the Turtle Island String Quartet could hope to produce with their crossover style of music is that someone in that audience went home and bought a copy of the CD. John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, that is.

The last time that the Turtle Island Quartet played in Washington, in November 2003, Joan Reinthaler wrote a glowing review in the Washington Post (go to the last page of this .PDF file). They are a talented group, not to say that their technique inspires a rave, and I enjoyed their performance on a visceral level. I am just not sure if what they do really contributes anything to either jazz or classical music: in fact, it may detract from both. My current theory is that the enthusiasm for the crossover genre may be mostly limited to the United States, as was apparently demonstrated by the British critical reception of Osvaldo Golijov's music recently. The Turtles are wildly popular in America, but I wonder how critics in other countries have reacted to what they do.

It is fun to listen to, however, and that may be enough. It is certainly enough for their many admirers in the more traditional classical music world -- Marin Alsop, Yo-Yo Ma, the Ying Quartet, and many others. You will have another chance to hear the Turtle Island String Quartet, this time for free, when they play a concert on April 6 at the Library of Congress. I won't be able to hear the Turtles that week, but you definitely should, just to see what all the fuss is about. You will enjoy what you hear. Even better, the Juilliard String Quartet will finally be coming back to Washington the following night. That is something to cheer about.

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