Turtle Island Quartet must be the only string ensemble formed because a 14-year-old fell in love with the music of Jimi Hendrix. Or was it Mahavishnu Orchestra? Mandolin wizard David Grisman?
David Balakrishnan, who plays first violin for Turtle three decades after co-founding the group, had those influences and others swirling in his head as a California high schooler. That explains why nobody has been able to classify a group that plays jazz (and sometimes whatever it feels like) on instruments associated with Mozart.
What it feels like now is “Jelly, Rags and Monk,” which opens the Charlotte Concerts season Friday at Halton Theatre. This third collaboration with pianist Cyrus Chestnut pays tribute to (among others) Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin and Rocky Mount native Thelonious Monk.
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“A lot of the ideas (for arrangements) came from Cyrus,” says Balakrishnan, who’s 61. “He has a personal way of hearing this music, and the quartet lets him get closer to the inflection he’s hearing. For the Jelly Roll and ragtime pieces, he sent us straightforward parts to play. With Monk, we were more joined stylistically. And if we needed more space to improvise, we’d say, ‘Can we open it up here?’ He’d leave sections unfinished for us to do that.
“The question was, how do you swing so (our) parts don’t sound classical? We’re playing (Debussy’s) ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk,’ which is usually played fast, but we do it in a subtler swing style. It’s total enjoyment to explore different styles of music with a guy who really knows what he wants to do with them.”
You might call these musicians lifelong learners: They have collaborated with Americana guitarist Leo Kottke, Latin clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, Luna Negra Dance Theater, the classical Ying Quartet. Balakrishnan says no type of music would be out of bounds, if a member of the group had a lifelong love for it.
“I studied a wide range of styles and want to play where my natural expressivity comes,” Balakrishnan says. “I heard Hendrix live when I was 14 and trying to find out who I was; decades later, we did our Hendrix album (“Have You Ever Been?”).
“When I was 22, I sat in with (jazz pioneer) Stephane Grappelli and met Yehudi Menuhin, who had become this emblematic guy: A great classical musician who played with Grappelli and Ravi Shankar. He wasn’t really swinging, and he didn’t sound like an Indian violinist, but he wanted to play everything. Yo-Yo Ma puts himself on the line the same way today, taking all these chances.”
Turtle’s lineup often changes. (The group’s had more violists than Spinal Tap had drummers.) Cellist Mark Summer will go in 2016, leaving Balakrishnan the lone founding player. So what’s on his performance bucket list?
“Playing more original music, mine and the young players in the group. I’m asking myself, ‘Who am I as a composer? Can I get this done? Will this affect our bookings?’
“When you’re 61, you think, ‘O.K., I have 15 years to play.’ And that’s not a given: A violinist is subject to his hand’s ability to make moves. So now I want to do what I am drawn to do.”