Turtle Island Quartet Soothes Audience with Cool Jazz

Himani Parekh / Staff Reporter

They moved in harmony, as if the music wove through them and infused everything it touched with melodic grace.

On Friday, Oct. 24, Turtle Island Quartet performed a program called Birth of the Cool in the Willie Miller Auditorium as part of the Honors Series. The group consists of violinists David Balakrishnan and Mateusz Smoczynski, cellist Mark Summer, and violist Benjamin von Gutzeit. Based out of Los Angeles, the four are known for their innovative use of string instruments to play non-classical styles.

All four had similar roots: intensely classical training that eventually morphed into a preference for improvisation and experimentation. Balakrishnan found himself drawn to rock music scene as a youth and realized that he could emulate the sounds of an electric guitar on his violin because the violin was already equipped to make notes linger. Smoczynski was interested in jazz. Von Gutzeit, also drawn to rock and roll at a young age, experimented with guitar despite his classical training but eventually returned to the viola when he realized that he was not nearly as good at guitar and that he could do more with the viola. Summer early on discovered he was better at, and much preferred, improvising to following an established piece. Under the shared interest in combining classical training with unusual style choices, Turtle Island Quartet came together in 1985. Since then, the group has pushed its bounds to envelop a variety of styles, including swing, bluegrass, new age, and rock, and received two GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Crossover.

Unsurprisingly, their program for the evening, Birth of the Cool, was originally performed by a group of nine jazz musicians. Evidently four string instrumentalists can play the music of nine jazz musicians quite well. From my position at the top of the steps of the packed auditorium, I could see the musicians occasionally lay down their bows to pluck, strum, or, in the case of cellist Summer, rhythmically tap on, their instruments to create the percussive notes of jazz. The result was a soothing but vivid ambience. The sound was elegant, energetic but laid back.

The hour and half performance by Turtle Island Quartet was a singular and absolutely marvelous musical experience and an excellent way to spend a Friday night.