Play It Cool: Turtle Island Quartet Pays Homage To Jazz Legends

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photo: Bill Reitzel

The Ohio University Performing Arts Series is hosting The Turtle Island Quartet, a two-time Grammy Award-winning group that plays conventional classical instruments in a non-conventional style, on Monday, Sept. 22 in Baker University Center.

The quartet will debut their new movement, Birth of the Cool, and album, Confetti Man, both paying homage to the jazz era with new arrangements of old standards by Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and other legends.

In addition, the group will premiere a new work by violinist and founding member David Balakrishnan called "Rebirth of the Holy Fool" that bears the hallmarks of the quartet's eclectic style.

At first glance, combining classical and cool jazz might not seem like an easy marriage. But it's a natural fit for Turtle Island, whose members share a background in both traditional and improvisational performance.

"It’s an emphasis on the blending of voices," explained cellist and group co-founder Mark Summer.

Now approaching their 30th anniversary, The Turtle Island Quartet has played an important part in contemporary classical music. Today, string groups are no longer limited to performing 200-year-old pieces. Instead, many ensembles have been encouraged to push the musical envelope, with Turtle Island leading by example.

Since 1985 the group has performed everything from public domain material to Jimi Hendrix hits. However, Balakrishnan's genre-busting aspirations came earlier when he labeled himself a "rock-n-roll violinist" in middle school.

"When I was young, I remember hearing a voice whisper, 'Hey, why don’t you play the violin?' And that voice was my Mom’s," he said.

Born into a musical household, Balakrishnan–who grew up in the '70s–was in love with the music of his era. So naturally he began playing guitar licks on his violin–a revolutionary idea that would later be a founding principle of the group.

This marrying of genres would expand to incorporate Indian, American folk, bluegrass, jazz and classical ("the food groups of music," quipped Balakrishnan), all proving essential to the quartet’s style.

Composing a rock n’ roll or jazz piece on orchestral instruments might be perplexing to a musician who isn’t widely versed in different genres. As such, Turtle Island's unique songwriting process relies on the natural abilities, varied musical tastes and creative minds of the group members.

For example, the quartet–which also includes Mateusz Smoczynski on violin and Benjamin von Gutzeit on viola–have used cello as a bass guitar and violin as a percussion instrument.

This unorthodox approach to traditional instruments can serve as an ice-breaker for audiences not steeped in the classical tradition, or as Summer wryly puts it: "How do we fool the audience into thinking that they aren’t listening to an orchestra?"

This irreverent attitude extends to the group's concerts, where they encourage audience members to have fun–even dance in the aisles if they feel so inclined.

"People are often surprised. Music is a lot like theater, and we try to communicate that to our audience and reach them on a deeper level," said Summer.

"There’s a commonality of spirit you’re touching," added Balakrishnan. The two have been performing together for nearly three decades and still genuinely love what they do.

"As I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed I’ve started practicing slower and slower," he said. "At my age you finally realize who you are and you’re no longer concerned with being the best. I’m just practicing slower and slower and really enjoying the way the notes sound…how it feels to create music."

Show time is 7:30 p.m. in the Baker Center Theater. Tickets are $10 general admission, $8 for seniors and $5 for students. Visit www.ohio.edu/performingarts for more information.