The string quartet is a classical music mainstay, favored by composers for its harmonic range and versatility, but it hasn't been much adapted for jazz. Despite the huge number of classical stringed instruments, only the bass has been embraced with any enthusiasm by jazz musicians. Since the birth of the "third stream" and "fusion" movements, other stringed instruments have slowly been gaining ground, but not much. While classical wind and keyboard instruments have provided the greater part of jazz's main guard, strings have mostly fallen by the wayside.
Enter the Turtle
I first heard this group play on NBC's Today show in 1989, while they were promoting their second recording, Metropolis. I was instantly taken with their music, and bought their first two recordings that same day. They were my first serious introduction to jazz music, eventually leading me to a deeper appreciation of bop masters like Dizzy Gillespe, Charlie Parker, and Lee Morgan.
The name of the group is taken from a book titled Turtle Island by Gary Snyder, published in 1974 by the New Directions Publishing Corporation. An excerpt from the book included in the liner notes of TISQ's first recording avows that "Turtle Island" is an indigenous name for North America, derived from ancient creation myths.
TISQ was founded in 1985 by Darol Anger, David Balakrishnan, Mark Summer, and Laurie Moore. Violinists Anger and Balakrishnan have musical backgrounds rooted mostly in bluegrass and jazz, and had played with some of the groups that began extending the range of stringed instruments in jazz. Summer, the group's cellist, has a classical background, and had played with the Winnipeg Symphony. Violist Moore had left the group prior to the release of their first recording in 1988, Turtle Island String Quartet, and I don't know much about her; in fact, I only know she exists because she is given a special mention in the liner notes. Moore was replaced by Irene Sazer, who played with the group through their first two recordings.
The composition of the group has changed over the years, as members have dropped in and out. Most of the turnover has been in the violist's chair; Irene Sazer was replaced in turn by Katrina Wreede, and Danny Seidenberg. David Balakrishnan was replaced by Tracy Silverman in 1993, then returned to the group in 1997. In 1997 Darol Anger left the group, and was replaced by Evan Price.
"There's nothing these instruments can't do!"
TISQ's repertoire consists of jazz standards and original compositions. David Balakrishnan is the principal composer and does most of the arrangements, although other members of the group get into the act from time to time. All are virtuoso performers capable of masterful improvisation: in itself the soul of jazz.
If improvisation is the soul of jazz, then the swinging, syncopated rhythm is its heart. The group has invented and perfected a number of amazing bowing and plucking techniques for this purpose, producing some truly remarkable effects. By the nature of his instrument, most of the beat is carried by Mark Summer's cello. Summer combines the traditional techniques of the jazz ensemble stand-up bass, such as plucking, slapping, and sliding notes, with rhythmic bowing. And if his cello lacks the deep resonance of the stand-up bass, it is more than compensated for by his versatility. The viola and violins also sometimes take up some of the rhythm, producing a sound rather like a snare drum with staccato bowing behind the bridge of the instrument.
Kronos: The Inevitable Comparison
Every article I've seen on TISQ has made some reference to the ground-breaking work of the Kronos Quartet. This is the group that has, more than any other, extended the range of the string quartet, playing versions of jazz standards and rock classics, as well as their classical repertoire. Kronos is probably the single most popular string quartet today. They are not, however, a jazz ensemble. Unlike Kronos, TISQ specializes in jazz, and produces true improvisation.
The Future of the Jazz String Quartet
It's hard to say where all of this is going. Since TISQ's first releases, a number of other jazz string quartets have formed: the Soldier String Quartet, the Uptown String Quartet, the Greene Quartet, and the Really Eclectic String Quartet. Still, I don't see any great acknowledgment in jazz references of these groups. In record stores, I see TISQ stocked with classical music (and sometimes even with new-age) as often as I find it in the jazz section. It seems the music world by-and-large views the jazz string quartets as curiosities, but not as serious players in the mainstream. My own opinion? TISQ's recordings definitely have a different feel from the sax-and-trumpet bands, but the music swings, and the arrangements are wonderfully performed. TISQ is definitely worth your listening time.
Visit the official web-site of the Turtle Island String Quartet.