Most musicians tend to avoid arguments about centuries-old nomenclature such as "chamber music," but not David Balakrishnan, violinist and composer for Oakland's Turtle Island String Quartet (TISQ). The Hamburg Concert, the group's latest CD, supplements classical variations with jazz standards, a globe-trotting hybrid and a funk cover associated with Tower of Power that's sure to offend purists. Balakrishnan, though, isn't concerned about criticism. "We don't care," he says. "We just play."
As a boardmember of Chamber Music America, a service-and-funding organization dedicated to the preservation of the chamber style, Balakrishnan certainly respects the venerable form's rich history. Moreover, he understands full well that the string-quartet configuration of two violins, a viola and a cello that's employed by TISQ came to be regarded as the most elevated means of rendering chamber works during Mozart's and Haydn's day. But in his opinion, the chamber approach, in which one member of an instrumental ensemble plays each part (as opposed to an orchestra that assigns sections of performers to individual components), needn't be restricted to European classical music. "How can you say that the Modern Jazz Quartet isn't just as much of a chamber-music group as the Guarneri Quartet?" he asks.
Of course, TISQ isn't alone in challenging these preconceptions: The Kronos Quartet has embraced contemporary classical, jazz, minimalism, Russian folk, African grooves and a host of avant-garde music during its 26 years of life, while the Balanescu Quartet's repertoire includes songs by Kraftwerk, Gavin Bryars and David Byrne. But Turtle Island (a term for North America derived from Native American folklore) is differentiated from such acts by its concentration on American vernacular--a melting pot of jazz, bluegrass, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, folk and more that's simmered on the classical stove top.
To assemble such disparate elements into a coherent whole requires unimpeachable musicianship, and the men of TISQ are more than up to the task. As Balakrishnan puts it, "The four of us in Turtle Island are all, first and foremost, improvising jazz musicians who happen to play string instruments and who happen to have very strong classical technical background in terms of conservatory training." But in truth, the four's kaleidoscopic backgrounds cover even more ground. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, combo co-founder Mark Summer is TISQ's virtuoso anchor--an internationally renowned cellist who has worked with the Winnipeg Symphony for three seasons and is also in the lineup of Trio con Brio. Danny Seidenberg, a Pittsburgh native and Juilliard graduate who doubles on violin and viola, is just as eclectic, bringing R&B and the flavor of classical crossover to TISQ and an exceedingly wide range of other acts and artists; he's performed with Steve Reich, the Village People, Liza Minnelli and numerous New York symphonies. Detroit-born Evan Price, meanwhile, is a young phenom. Still in his mid-twenties, this former fiddle champion has shared stages or studios with Stephane Grappelli, Mark O'Connor and Stevie Wonder and was part of the string section used by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
As for Balakrishnan, he's got impeccable jazz chops: He's collaborated with the Modern Jazz Quartet, among others, and was nominated for a Grammy in 1989 for his arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." But his classical explorations at Antioch University West, where he earned a master's degree, were arguably the key to TISQ's development. "I was studying Beethoven, and I was just flipping out about what a genius he was," he says. "The more you dug into it, the more you realized just how deep he was." This interest in serious composition soon blended with his fondness for other sounds: "I started writing string-quartet music with the idea of being a classical composer, but with the guts of the music being jazz and folk music and Indian music--and classical music, too, but more integrated in an equal manner."
The problem? There were no musicians who could do the numbers justice--"not because it's so hard," Balakrishnan notes, "but because of the phrasing and the style it's written in, it wouldn't work. It would sound silly." So in 1985, Balakrishnan and Summer created TISQ, and in the fourteen years since then, the quartet has succeeded in its twin goals of expanding the scope of chamber music and bringing strings into jazz, albeit in the context of a larger worldview. Today the outfit is a fusion band only in the larger sense of the word--meaning that it's concerned with more than merely jamming two genres together. According to Balakrishnan, "You have to really love the styles you're drawing from and have studied them and understand them from a deep place, I believe, to have a truly successful integration of styles." He adds, "We're about trying to get very deeply into the inner connections between these styles, because human beings all resonate the same way on some basic level in terms of music."
Balakrishnan embodies this philosophy, affectionately weaving together sounds rooted in his East Indian heritage with touches of classical and bebop, as well as the folk and bluegrass he concentrates on while playing with mandolinist David Grisman. An example is "Marwa in the Pines," a piece from Hamburg that builds on a similar mode found both in the Indian Marwa raga and bluegrass. Its focus on the symmetry of a melismatic transition between major and minor thrillingly merges two seemingly disparate techniques instead of simply juxtaposing them.
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If efforts like this one seldom seem dry and academic, it's because of the musicians' continuing romance with their instruments. "The violin creates a visceral, physical feeling of joy in my soul when I play it, and that's independent, really, of the style," Balakrishnan says. "For instance, when you play a major chord in a string quartet, perfectly in tune, and you just sustain that major chord, you can get high off it. Playing in a string quartet is like playing in some perfect form of nature."
While spreading this gospel, the Islanders take delight in moving with the times, whether by leading a middle-school workshop, hooking up with jazz pianist Dr. Billy Taylor or recording with Henry Kaiser, as Balakrishnan has done. To classical and jazz reviewers who might prefer that their musical foods not touch on the plate, Balakrishnan says, "This is no different than Brahms and Mozart. Those guys were drawing on the folk music of their times."
True enough, the chamber music of the late Middle Ages was performed with whatever instruments were available. Viewed in this light, the christening of Jimi Hendrix, the Chemical Brothers or even Tower of Power as chamber musicians may actually constitute a roots movement. "It's a wonderful time to see how these old definitions are collapsing," Balakrishnan says. "New things are happening."
Turtle Island String Quartet. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 18, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, $15.75-$21, 303-786-7030.