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Still pushing boundaries after all these years

Turtle Island Quartet continue to challenge themselves and delight their audiences

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 06:00 am

NO TUNNEL VISION – Turtle Island Quartet is renowned for its groundbreaking blend of every musical style under the sun.
NO TUNNEL VISION – Turtle Island Quartet is renowned for its groundbreaking blend of every musical style under the sun.
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Turtle Island Quartet
The Art of the Groove
Friday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
A String Quartet is Like a Family
Saturday, Feb. 15 at 2 p.m.
Arden Theatre
Tickets: $38 for Groove and $15 to $18 for Family

Whether Turtle Island Quartet was the first classical chamber group to record jazz is debatable.

But over its 29 years on the musical map, the California-based foursome has easily outclassed its competition in both innovation and impressive recordings.

This wide-ranging string quartet defies classification within any one genre. Instead, the classically-trained musicians play with an American accent, cross-pollinating jazz, blues, rock, pop, Latin and East Indian music.

“We’re not just crossing over. This is where we live – in that creation of different styles. It makes us thrive,” says founding cellist Mark Summer, in a telephone interview from his home in Marin County, Calif., near San Francisco.

As a musical entity, Turtle Island has received well-deserved international appeal. Even the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma likened the band to a “unified voice that truly breaks new ground – authentic and passionate – a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today.”

On what appears to be a never-ending U.S. tour, the two-time Grammy Award winners are making St. Albert their one Canadian stop, appearing at the Arden Theatre on Feb. 14 and 15.

Their newest jazz album, Mike Marshall and The Turtle Island String Quartet, was just released in January to glowing reviews.

Brent Black of Critical Jazz wrote, “Expect the unexpected, a new age of harmonic enlightenment as this cutting edge quintet boldly go where most string players fear to tread. The creation of that illusive three dimensional sonic depth of field is the melodic equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle.”

Turtle Island’s Friday performance, The Art of the Groove, allows the band to explore a mash-up of mixes from Johann Sebastian Bach to Mike Marshall, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and some tunes from Confetti Man, a new CD scheduled for release this fall.

In contrast, the Saturday concert, A String Quartet is Like a Family, is a looser performance that draws comparisons between instruments’ interactions and family dynamics.

Founding members, Summer and David Balakrishnan (violin) have provided a foundation and stability. But they have discovered ideal partners in Mateusz Smoczynski (violin) and Benjamin von Gutzeit (viola).

Balakrishnan is the major composer, meticulously crafting and borrowing from every conceivable genre and softly blending it with his East Indian heritage. And each year he ups the ante, challenging the players to new levels of lyrical motion and virtuosic wizardry.

“Mateusz just arrived from Poland and he is so excited be touring and playing with us. He loves the music and is eager to go to as many concerts as possible. His enthusiasm is infectious to play with,” Summer said.

Each of the players is an accomplished soloist. They also excel at bowing, playing pizzicato or playing percussion with their instruments – all techniques that enhance the global flavourings.

“The cello is a warm voice. But it’s also a flexible instrument where I play bass, sax and percussion. I hit the side or strike the fingerboard and try to be a one-man band,” chuckles Summer.

Back in 1985 when Balakrishnan invited Summer to join him in creating what was then a new concept – a string quartet that played everything from Bach to bossa nova. Neither realized the hard work, the acclaim and the legacy they would leave to the American music scene.

“It’s all great music,” Summer says, “and it’s all about the rhythm.”


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