Some things just go together: harpsichord and Bach, brass and Sousa, piano and Monk.
If the idea of a string quartet playing jazz leaves you bemused, bear with me. Jazz is the genre built around what happens when musicians push limits and flip expectations. It could be argued Turtle Island Quartet is the embodiment of those tweaks to the canon.
The disparate musicians with violins, violas and cellos who make up this 30-year collaboration may look the part, but they don’t sound it. Rather than building a repertoire around Haydn and Bartok, the quartet’s members have established a discography that swings from Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis and Dewey Redman. They’ll play Monday night at 7:30 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center as part of the JazzSLC series.
Founder and violinist David Balakrishnan is the creative constant in the group. “We represent this beautiful art form and update it to a more broad worldview of how music is made,” he says.
Well on his way to a classical career, 14-year-old Balakrishnan discovered his classmates responded better to Jimi Hendrix adaptations than they did Handel. He graduated from UCLA’s composition program in 1976 and began performing — with the David Grisman Quartet and Stephane Grappelli, among others. Balakrishnan followed up with a master’s degree in composition from San Francisco’s Antioch University West, studying Schoenberg and Stravinsky before focusing on Charlie Parker. Then in 1985, he started Turtle Island.
American string musicians are the only ones who could pull off a jazz quartet, Balakrishnan says. Classically trained European quartets can’t achieve the same feeling. Their heads are full of Beethoven.
“That music doesn’t swing. It has a lack of integrity to the phrasing. It’s not their fault. It’s like the wrong accent,” he says. “As children, we were attracted to improvising, rock and roll, modern jazz, more sophisticated progressions. The skillset allows for a different expression than you would hear in a string quartet of classical players ‘crossing over.’”
Turtle Island’s first album was released in 1988 by Windham Hill. More than a dozen more have followed — through variations on folk, bluegrass, bebop, funk and R&B — including the group’s newest release, “Bird’s Eye View,” out Feb. 9. The album, and Monday’s show, will include takes on classics like Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” Parker’s “Koko” and “Subconscious-Lee” by Lee Konitz.
“We don’t play the music of Charlie Parker,” Balakrishnan says, “we use it as an inspiration point.” Half of Monday’s playlist will be original compositions.
Whatever happens, Balakrishnan says, the Salt Lake audience can expect up-to-date jazz variations from Turtle Island’s musicians. Over the years, the quartet has ebbed and flowed with its parts, from original members Darol Anger and Mark Summer to the “baby” turtles in the group now — Brooklyn-based violinist Alex Hargreaves, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit and cellist Malcolm Parson. Bay Area-based Balakrishnan travels to New York for their collaborations.
“I pretend I’m in my 20s, stay up too late, and then come home and collapse,” he says. “These players are right in the middle of the cutting edge of what’s happening with jazz right now.”
Turtle Island Quartet
When • Monday, Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $29.50, $10 for students with ID; ArtTix (https://artsaltlake.org) or 801-355-ARTS (2787)
Next up for JazzSLC
Joey Alexander Trio (March 31) • This 14-year-old Bali-born, self-taught pianist is considered one of the brightest young lights in jazz.
Benny Green Trio (April 28) • Green is described as “perhaps the most exciting hard-swinging, hard-bop pianist to ever emerge from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.”
John Clayton: The Next Generation (May 21) • The composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator and extraordinary bassist brings top up-and-coming musicians to the Capitol Theatre to wrap up the season.