Turtle Island String Quartet and Cyrus Chestnut Explore Jelly, Rags and Monk at Hammons Hall

Nov 5, 2015

Jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut and the Turtle Island String Quartet trace the musical journey from ragtime through Jelly Roll Morton to Thelonious Monk and modern jazz at Hammons Hall on November 5.
Credit (Photo courtesy Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts)

The Turtle Island String Quartet, founded 30 years ago this month and still led by founder, violinist/composer David Balakrishnan, was perhaps the original cross-genre string ensemble: a classical string quartet--two violins, viola and cello--but playing mostly non-classical music and styles. Turtle Island comes to the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts Thursday November 5th at 7:30pm, joined by master jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut in a program they call "Jelly, Rags and Monk," featuring music from the ragtime era through Jelly Roll Morton and all the way to Thelonious Monk and modern jazz.

David Balakrishnan is nothing if not enthusiastic in talking about his music and his mission. I was, in fact, surprised by his eagerness to do yet another media interview (how many must he have had to sit through over the years?).  I asked him why he was so eager to talk. "It's because you just value being heard, communicating what you love to do and why it's worth listening to. This is a precious thing! And as you get older and you do this for longer, and you've been fighting hard to keep yourself relevant and your music alive and vibrant in the present time--and yet also keep the tradition that it stands for alive--you realize, you know, it's a precious thing to have the outlet."

David Balakrishnan founded the Turtle Island String Quartet in the San Francisco Bay area late in 1985--but not to play conventional classical concert music. "I really got the idea," he says, "of how it would be to have a string quartet where all the players would be like me, they'd have that multi-stylistic background and they could 'sing' the music with the right 'accent', which the music is entirely based on--without which it would suck! You know, because it would just sound like some kind of hackneyed, kind-of 'classical' music. But if you knew how to play with that right phrasing, and how to improvise with the right feel, it would come alive."

And of course, that's the key to what makes the Turtle Island Quartet what it is: the group has always been based on that improvisational jazz feeling--even while some people have characterized them as "classical crossover." But that's never really what they've been about.  One of the first charts they worked up was an arrangement of the Oliver Nelson jazz tune "Stolen Moments."

"Right away," says David Balakrishnan, "we knew, 'My goodness! We've got something here--this is a sound that really works!'  But nonetheless it was a struggle, because we really thought of ourselves as a jazz string quartet. We claimed to be the first."  But they had to create a niche for themselves that made sense to the public. "Exactly. Now we had some help, because by that time other string quartets were exploring non-classical music. But they were exploring it from (the viewpoint of) being classical musicians 'crossing over' to play other styles.  There's that funny word, 'crossover'." (Which is why David prefers to call their music "cross-genre.")

Soon they were picked up by the new-age record label Windham Hill, who created a jazz sub-label for Turtle Island and other acts. But they quickly discovered that, no what what style of music they played, a string quartet works better in a concert hall than in a noisy jazz club.

"We had more success playing for 'classical' audiences, playing string quartet music that they could tap their foot to, and reclaiming improvising for string players.  That's a big part of Turtle Island."

David Balakrishnan feels that one way the Turtle Island String Quartet has managed to survive for so many years is by collaborating with other like-minded musicians such as jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who will join them at Hammons Hall on November 5. Balakrishnan calls Chestnut "a monster jazz pianist--he's just such a soulful guy. And he's got incredibly deep training... and he's not trapped by it.  So you can really work with him and cover a lot of stylistic ground without losing who he is."

Thelonious Monk is, of course, a jazz icon today. But Jelly Roll Morton? "Not so much known to us," admits Balakrishnan.  "And so this is an idea that Cyrus had: he wanted to look, in a way, to kind of reach into the back-story of where Monk came out of." They'll even take a brief detour into ragtime music during the concert at Hammons Hall--another predecessor of the "modern jazz" sound of Thelonious Monk.