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Turtle Island String Quartet Performs "A Love Supreme" at Stanford


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Try to figure out a way to recreate Elvin Jones on drums. You can't, so we're trying to show a different side
—Mads Tolling, violinist
Turtle Island String Quartet
Stanford Lively Arts Series
Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
February 16, 2008

One of the drags about string quartets is it's taboo to applaud solos. Not that the urge is common, but imagine a Village Vanguard crowd sitting on their hands most of the evening and punctuating the final ovation with a single cry of "bravo" from the back of the room.
That nagging disjointedness slightly blemished the Turtle Island String Quartet's nearly flawless dissection of A Love Supreme at Stanford University on February 16, the group's first live performance of the masterpiece after winning the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album for A Love Supreme: The Legacy Of John Coltrane. The two-and-a-half-hour concert also featured the world premier of a torrid two-part suite paying tribute to a heavy donor of regional arts programs.

The quartet excels at modern mainstream jazz, but interpreting Coltrane's spiritual landmark was "a bit over our heads," said Mads Tolling, one of the group's three violinists. Some parts are one- or two-chord progressions that can't sustain listener interest when played by a string quartet, so the first portions feature extra flourishes influenced by Stravinsky and some 20th century European composers. Later, as the structure becomes more complex, the group's blues-oriented capabilities are a more natural fit.

There's also the challenge of capturing the nuances of the original quartet's individual players. "Try to figure out a way to recreate Elvin Jones on drums," Tolling said. "You can't, so we're trying to show a different side. When they played that, the musicians [and] Coltrane hadn't seen the music. They just went into the studio and started playing."

The first half of the concert featured various jazz works, including Paquito D'Rivera's "Wapango" (Coming off OK, but not up to the caliber of subsequent pieces), Coltrane's modal rearrangement of "My Favorite Things" (a touch showtune soft, but also strong passages of ascending and exciting group discordance) and Chick Corea's "Senor Mouse" (intriguing, with new violinist Jeremy Kittel playing the right-hand lines and cellist Mark Summer the left while the other players comped, with the quartet rotating roles throughout the piece).

The featured premier was "Anika's Dream," written for arts patron David Kaun by David Balakrishnan, a founding member of the quartet. The piece was modern and intense, highlighted by his dominance of the second movement with an unaccompanied opening bass/melody solo, followed by a bowing interlude. In a discussion following the concert, he said he began composing the piece January 11 and worked on it during constant road touring. "That's very late to start a piece like this — I like to give myself three or four months," he said. "It was done on planes and in hotels and a lot just in the middle of playing with some of these great musicians." Summer contributed an evaluation of the group's performance on the occasion: "We really only came together tonight... I had a feeling when we actually played the piece something would happen and it did."

The second half of the evening was dominated by A Love Supreme, with Summer plucking the famous repetitive lead line while slapping a light soundboard percussion on "Acknowledgment." The arrangement stayed true to its written roots, while the remaining three movements were heavy on improvisation. A high point was Tolling's emulation of horn stylings from the era on "Resolution," mixing bursts of notes and drawn out higher tones, although his phrasing was more contemporary and glided smoother than Coltrane. Kittel didn't quite match that depth during a slow bridge on "Pursuance," and Summer's quick work on "Psalm" coasted a bit too smoothly to feel like a rewarding challenge.

The whole stood above the improvised parts, however, as a mix of composed orchestration and spontaneous collaboration consistently kept the promise of an alternative voicing of themes returning to their origins enough to remain familiar. The complexity of their arranging made it tough to tell which was which — indeed, if anything felt vaguely disappointing, it was my inability to distinguish differences beyond individual solos between the concert and the similarly exceptional work on their album.

Summer, when I asked him afterward if Coltrane's material happened to limit or expand their sense of improvisational freedom, said the adrenalin from premiering "Anika's Dream"—combined with a relaxing setting after some road stops in tough conditions—infused energy into the evening. "Tonight was different," he added. "We were psyched."

Summer highlighted the before-the-encore finale, Stanley Clarke's "Song To John," plucking dual left- and right-hand melodies (He called it an effort to replicate Clarke's "things on the double bass that shouldn't be done," while someone I was with said it more closely resembled Stanley Jordan). It's an ideal composition for the group's meshing of classical and contemporary, from their cadence resembling Copland's "Hoedown" to the whimsical tossing in of a few lines from The Simpsons. As is often the case with audience-rousing endings, perhaps the concert should have ended there, as the standing ovation was immediate, loud and sustained.

They returned for an encore, Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" and, while the piece was more scholarly and subdued (Summer again shining, this time with a progression of walking bass lines consistently ranging just beyond their expected paths), it didn't possess the same communal energy. The crowd remained in their seats afterward, although about a fourth of them continued to stay there for the 20-minute question-and-answer session that followed.

A few listeners I talked to afterward, who said they were string quartet fans but unfamiliar with Turtle Island, claimed the performance was too dissonant for their tastes. At the same time, I can imagine a few hardcore fans of Coltrane's edgier horn lines missing something in the timbre. Otherwise, it was like hearing a new singer doing a surprisingly skilled cover of a classic, with the alternative sound canvas stirring a spiritual feeling that captured the essence of A Love Supreme—at least as convincingly as any interpretation since Coltrane's lone live performance of it in France in 1965.

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