Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Classically trained and cutting edge

The Turtle Island String Quartet is a jazz explosion

Express Staff Writer

The Grammy award-winning Turtle Island String Quartet will play Ketchum Saturday, March 3.

Whether it is called alternative chamber, classical-jazz fusion or progressive classical music, the Turtle Island String Quartet has given new meaning to the classical chamber string quartet and has expanded its range to an entirely new level of music appreciation.

On Saturday, March 3, at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum at 7:30 p.m. the Sun Valley Center for the Arts will present the Grammy Award-winning string quartet, which will perform music from its upcoming new CD release, "A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane" as well as its own traditional improvisational takes on other well-known jazz legends. The quartet will also perform additional string virtuosos such as Yo-Yo Ma.

"For some situations, it's nice to have a specific program," said founding member and violinist David Balakrishnan. "We operate almost like a jazz club, but on the other hand we are very cognizant on how we put together our program because it is a concert hall and not a jazz club."

The Turtle Island String Quartet was a dream of Balakrishnan's while he was finishing his master's thesis at Antioch University West. He finished in 1985. Exploring many genres of music such as folk, bluegrass, swing, be-bop, funk, R&B, rock, hip-hop, as well as Latin and Indian music, the ensemble has sought to incorporate many of these musical styles breaking the barriers of a traditional string quartet.

"The instruments are able to play so many styles, but the musicians are focused on playing classical," Balakrishnan said. "It opened doors for more possibilities and to expand with the rules without losing the focus on the form."

The success of Turtle Island, according Balakrishnan, is in part due to the group's ability to emulate a rhythm section within the string quartet.

"We use a technique called the chop. It is similar to the way bluegrass bands keeps rhythm, and it gives us the ability to keep a role like a drummer does," Balakrishnan said. "We can keep a swinging jazz band without all the instruments of a jazz band."

With a compositional approach to jazz, Turtle Island reinvigorates the traditional classically trained style each member possesses and presents well-known jazz music in the style of a quartet.

"In 21 years there has been a certain amount of membership change, which is natural for a group like this and these players are very individual players, but the turnover brings new ideas and new blood to the group," Balakrishnan said. "At 52, I still have stars in my eyes. It's amazing. I really believe in what we do, and it is a very important thing in music to perfect this form."

Spending more than four and half months touring a year as well as producing a Grammy award-winning CD, "4+Four," which won best classical crossover album last year, the Turtle Island Quartet also spends time educating young musicians about the world of music the band has created.

"A lot of what we do and what we continue to do is teaching and resident work with young players, especially since there is a struggle to keep music in the schools," Balakrishnan said. "There are all these orchestras and kids who grew up playing Mozart like we did, but we can show them that we can push the envelope on what these instruments can do. It's important that these instruments are not museum pieces."

Tickets for Turtle Island String Quartet are $15 for The Center members, $20 for non-members and $5 for children under 12. For more information, call 726-9491 or visit

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