The ever-evolving jazz strings chamber ensemble plays at the UW's Meany Hall Dec. 8.
Violinist David Balakrishnan pauses a half-beat to think of the adjective best describing exactly what he never wanted the Turtle Island Quartet to be: “monolithic.”
Founded by Balakrishnan, 64, in the early 1980s while completing his master’s degree in composition at Antioch University West (and making a name for himself as a sideman for mandolinist David Grisman and jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli), Turtle Island is the fluid, ever-evolving jazz strings chamber ensemble he envisioned from the beginning. (The quartet performs its “Winter’s Eve” program at Meany Hall Saturday, Dec. 8.)
By “jazz strings chamber ensemble,” Balakrishnan not only means a group literally playing jazz, but also functioning as a mutable collective that can play everything from Haydn to Hendrix to Hubbard. Turtle Island performs a diverse repertoire, but to call it simply eclectic would not capture the passion for discovery emerging from its ever-changing roster (excluding Balakrishnan) of musical personalities.
“If you’re a jazz violin player, by your very nature you’re rebellious, you want to do your own thing,” Balakrishnan says by phone from Albany, California. “Turtle Island is like having four soloists in a group, each capable of determining the direction we take. That creates a natural flow of changes, more like a jazz band than a classical group. I kept the lineup [varying] because if you had a group like this and they were always the same players, we would not be playing outside material but rather inside material.”
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Asking Balakrishnan about the “Winter’s Eve” concert, it’s clear he intends some serious fun. On the program is an unexpected marriage of August Wilhelmj’s arrangement of the second movement from J.S. Bach’s third Orchestral Suite in D major, “Air on the G String,” and Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven.” While that curious performance is likely to provoke later conversations over coffee about the kinship between these two pieces, Balakrishnan has a more sheepish explanation.
“There would seem to be little in common between them. But sometimes you do these things just for the titles. The Bach is so beautiful, perfect for the holidays. It also serves as a great intro to Miles Davis. Other than that, there’s no connection. It’s pure whimsy.”
Also on the bill are variations on Vivaldi’s “Winter” concerto.
“The Vivaldi is one of our stalwarts,” Balakrishnan says. The arrangement, influenced by New Age music, came out of early Turtle Island recordings on the independent, instrumental acoustic label Windham Hill.
“Windham Hill was known for solstice/Christmas recordings. Being on the label back then meant we recorded some things in that style. We still do play some of those because they are such great arrangements.”
Turtle Island will also play an old Irish reel called “Christmas Eve,” and a Hindu spiritual, “Vathapi,” a 19th-century composition Balakrishnan says was inspired by the sound of Irish fiddle music.
Winner of Grammy Awards for Best Crossover Classical Album in 2006 (“4 + Four”) and 2008 (“A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane”), Turtle Island currently consists of Balakrishnan (who will play both violin and baritone violin, which, he says, “has a reedy quality that works great for playing jazz”); cellist Malcolm Parson; violinist Gabriel Terracciano; and violist Benjamin Von Gutzeit.
Past members include some heavy hitters: Jeremy Kittel (who has played with Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer and My Morning Jacket); Mads Tolling (Stanley Clarke, Leo Kottke); and Turtle Island co-founder Darol Anger (Grisman, Grappelli, Bill Evans).
“A big part of the tradition of Turtle Island has always been the individual members,” says Balakrishnan. “All these years later, they’re still the primary artistic force. Not just the players, but the improvising we do. Luckily for me, there have always been players interested in what Turtle Island is about.”
Turtle Island Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8; Gerlich Theater at Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $46-$54 (one child 5 to 17 can get in free with a paying adult); meanycenter.org