Quartet makes jazz sing with strings

Music: The Turtle Island String Quartet shows it has rhythm on instruments known more for their classical capabilities. They've got rhythm -- on strings

April 08, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Quick -- name a jazz string quartet.

Classical string quartets are easy enough, thanks to such well-known names as the Juilliard String Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet and the Guarnieri String Quartet. There are also groups known for playing rock-oriented music, such as the Kronos Quartet and the Brodsky Quartet. There's even Apocalyptica, a quartet of cellists devoted to the music of Metallica.

But even the most knowledgeable jazz buffs would have a hard time naming more than one jazz string quartet. As violinist David Balakrishnan of the Turtle Island String Quartet -- perhaps the best-known and most enduring string group in jazz -- puts it, "The fact that there are any jazz string quartets at all is a minor miracle."

He should know.

Balakrishnan co-founded the Turtle Island String Quartet with fellow violinist Darrol Anger back in 1985. Over the years, the quartet has gone through numerous personnel changes -- Balakrishnan left for a while, and Anger departed last year -- but has made its mark nonetheless, recording steadily and maintaining a higher profile than such competitors as the Uptown String Quartet.

The dearth of jazz string quartets isn't simply because jazz violists are so hard to come by. "It's really because the culture of string players is so intense," he says in a telephone interview from his home outside San Francisco.

"The demands of being a professional classical player are just astronomical. It's like being a professional gymnast -- there's not a lot of time to dabble in other sports, so to speak. So it's unusual for classically trained players to want to get serious about playing jazz, to be able to cover both grounds."

Moreover, playing in a string quartet requires even more training and discipline than working as a solo violinist or cellist in jazz, because string quartet playing demands a different kind of thinking than soloing with a jazz combo.

"The string quartet is the ultimate classical music form," Balakrishnan says. "You could even say it's the most perfect musical form in nature. So a certain amount of expectation comes built in. To bring jazz in and have it be more than a novelty is quite a demand."

Balakrishnan and his band mates had to develop an entirely new vocabulary to play jazz with a string quartet. For one thing, there's no rhythm section for the group to lean on, and without drums, bass and piano or guitar, the four players had to come up with alternate means of making the music work.

"We don't really try to turn into a jazz band," Balakrishnan explains. "We have to deal with the fact that we're a string quartet -- four instruments, basically the same, basically melody-playing instruments. Having said that, we have explored all these ways of inventing techniques that invoke those roles."

For instance, cellist Mark Summer uses devices that draw both from classical cello technique and jazz bass playing. "The way you play pizzicato in the classical style is very different than the bass playing style or the jazz style," Balakrishnan says.

"But Mark has completely got that down. He also has developed all these percussive techniques, [such as] slapping the cello and using bowing techniques. He's a very striking player. It's kind of a paradigm shift to see him play."

To fill out the rhythm, the group has adapted a fiddle technique called the chop, in which the player slaps the string with his bow on after-beats. For the harmonic accompaniment -- called "comping" in jazz slang -- they play "jabs," which flesh out the chord changes. Taken together, it gives the group all the sounds a listener would expect from a jazz combo, despite the lack of bass, drums and piano.

"We've learned how to create the sound of a jazz rhythm section in a string quartet, but we're careful not to stay there too long," Balakrishnan says.

"If you stay there too long, you start figuring out that it's not really a drummer, it's not really a bass player. But that's the beauty of the whole thing, because when you go back and forth, you get such a wider picture. It starts showing you things about Coltrane that are like Ravel. Or it starts showing you things about Vivaldi that you can stretch into the bossa nova."

For its Baltimore appearance, Turtle Island will play with jazz legend Dr. Billy Taylor and his trio. This isn't just a matter of the two groups splitting the bill; they also will perform together, playing a piece Taylor composed for string quartet and jazz trio.

"Billy had written a piece for the Juilliard String Quartet and jazz trio," Balakrishnan says. "It was a commission." Although the piece was composed for the Juilliard, Taylor has been performing it with Turtle Island since the early '90s.

Taylor has said that "Turtle Island doesn't play it any better than the Juilliard Quartet," Balakrishnan says.

"It's different. And I agree. Juilliard is a magnificent group. It's just that we've brought a certain background to the way we play it, and it has a different life. We speak the language that Billy's writing in."

`The Turtle Island String Quartet'

When: Sunday, April 9, 3 p.m.

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $20, $30; boxes $40

Call: 410-783-8000

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