Turtle Island String Quartet

Recorded by the Turtle Island String Quartet, 1988, Windham Hill

Review by Tim

This is the Turtle Island String Quartet's debut recording, made in 1987 and released in 1988, which introduced the music world to a new phenomenon: the jazz string quartet. It is also the recording that earned TISQ the devoted following they have today.

The first four selections are arrangements of jazz classics from the bebop/hard bop eras, spanning the years from the late 1940's to the early 1960's. Bop grew out of the swing era, and is far more intricate than that earlier music, featuring strings of rapid-fire notes with a wide range of tones. I surmise that TISQ chose these selections to showcase their technical virtuosity; if that was their intent, they succeeded admirably. The selections are arranged in traditional format, with the main melody line played at the beginning and end of the track, the improvisations placed between.

Oliver Nelson was known primarily as an arranger of music, but made a brief foray into composition with his hard bop classic Blues and the Abstract Truth. David Balakrishnan arranged Nelson's laid-back "Stolen Moments", for the group, and it is a great introduction to the TISQ's technique. Mark Summer provides a walking bass line for the group on his cello, breaking off once with a soulful solo improvisation.

"A Night in Tunisia" is Dizzy Gillespe's classic bebop melody, and this is the selection that really hooked me on TISQ. Here the group manages to produce a variety of percussive sounds on their instruments, enhancing the swing rhythm of the piece. The improvisations soar and, at one point, buzz like an angry wasp on a window pane. I later obtained a truly awesome recording of this tune played by Dizzy Gillespe's Orchestra, which featured Milt Jackson's vibraphone. Comparing the two versions, one can hear how the instrumental treatments parallel each other, then veer wildly apart. The arrangement was done by David Balakrishnan.

On the other hand, I've never heard Miles Davis' version of his "Milestones", so I can't say how Balakrishnan's arrangement compares. The selection starts out with a theme plucked on the strings of the violins and viola. After a while the cello comes in, veering around the theme, letting the violins keep the time. Finally the violins take up the music, the viola keeping time with high, short, choppy notes, the cello reverting to stand-up bass mode. The improvisations are very fast-paced.

The pace increases with Earl Bud Powell's "Tempus Fugit", every bit as quick as the name implies. This time Darol Anger arranged the tune.

The four jazz standards are followed by a an original composition by David Balakrishnan: his four movement "String Quartet #1: Balapadem", which would seem to be a tribute to his family. The first movement, "Eurasian Hoedown", betrays some of Balakrishnan's bluegrass background, a quality that carries through in the last movement, "Hindu Toes". However, the most evocative movement of the piece is the third movement, "Variations on my Father's Footsteps".

The last selection on the recording is seven short, connected improvisations collectively labelled "The Decline of an American String Quartet." The piece showcases the group's special techniques, although it was a little too experimental for my taste.

The musicians of TISQ for this recording are:

David Balakrishnan: violin
Darol Anger: violin, ocatve violin
Irene Sazer: viola, violin
Mark Summer: violoncello

May, 2000