While there are any number of jazz groups that fit very comfortably into my frequent appeal to the concept of jazz as “chamber music by other means,” the Turtle Island Quartet may embody that concept better than any other group. They are, in every sense of the word, a string quartet (currently consisting of violinists David Balakrishnan and Mads Tolling, violist Jeremy Kittel, and cellist Mark Summer); but their approach to performance draws upon that same approach to improvisation that has been part of jazz at least since the forties, if not earlier. However, their latest CD, Have You Ever Been…?, throws an entirely new light on the nature of their source material and the “other means” applied to it.
The title of the CD is also the title of the first composition it offers, a suite of four selections from the Jimi Hendrix Experience album Electric Ladyland. One might say that this is a suite of “Jimi Hendrix by other means;” but that would betray a listening to the Jimi Hendrix Experience that is shallower than that group deserves. We have a tendency to think of Hendrix as an acid-inspired electric guitarist who took his instrument where no musical instrument has gone before, sometimes to the brink of destruction and sometimes over that brink. However, as the far more conservative Erroll Garner has observed, you can’t let your freedom of expression run wild without having some kind of foundation. Both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Turtle Island Quartet appreciate the need for such a foundation, and the Have You Ever Been…? suite amounts to the synthesis of those respective foundations.
If the Turtle Island Quartet defines itself as the embodiment of chamber music by other means, then I would like to propose that the foundation for the Jimi Hendrix Experience was the pursuit of blues by other means. The point of departure for those other means was the recognition of blues not as the formality of a twelve-bar structure of harmonic progressions nor, as Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis put it, as the venting of painful feelings through a “music [that] was created because the black man had nothing else.” Rather, it was the recognition of the blues as a source of sonorities so out of the ordinary as to perplex the traditionally trained (and usually white) musician, if not scare the bejesus out of him. Hendrix appreciated just how bizarre those sonorities could be when confined to acoustic instruments, and in his electric guitar he found the means to takes those bizarre qualities up way more than a few notches.
If we can appreciate this view of the foundation of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, then we can easily recognize just how ingenious Balakrishnan’s arrangements of the four selections from Electric Ladyland are. He has done nothing less than take Hendrix’ wildest sonorities and transport them back from the electronic to the acoustic domain. Naturally, one quickly recognizes that the physical signals coming from a string quartet have different qualities from those of an electric guitar. (Duh!) However, what makes Have You Ever Been…? so uncannily fascinating is that the spirit of Hendrix’ quest for new sonorities is alive and well and embodied in the Turtle Island Quartet instruments in ways that cannot be explained through mere words. Suffice it to say that there is something visceral in the string quartet that will resonate with anyone familiar with the old Hendrix tracks.
The only downside to Balakrishnan’s success is that it dwarfs the remaining tracks on the new Turtle Island Quartet CD. This is particularly true of his own four-movement suite, Tree of Life, which can be approached as a more-than-metaphoric celebration of the organic nature of music itself. One might say that Balakrishnan’s problem, however, is that, while Have You Ever Been…? takes one “branch of the tree of music” and follows it down through several offshoots, Tree of Life tries to take on the whole enchilada. The result is an overloaded gumbo (to mix metaphors) with so many flavors (rather exhaustively enumerated in the booklet of notes in a paragraph taken from an NPR review of the music) that no individual flavor is ever adequately discernable. In many respects Balakrishnan was on far better ground when he extracted “Monkey Business,” the scherzo movement from this quite, and performed it on its own when the Turtle Island Quartet gave their last San Francisco Performances recital this past December.
The remaining arrangements on the CD are more of a mixed bag. The Hendrix spirit is probably best served when Mike Marshall adds his mandocello to the Turtle Island Quartet for Balakrishnan’s arrangement of Hendrix arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” This is probably because Marshall adds some of the sonorities of plucked strings, but he also demonstrates that he can go as wild as Hendrix without the need for electronic reinforcement. On the other hand Stefon Harris’ use of vibes in Balakrishnan’s arrangement of “Gypsy Eyes” is a bit too sterile; and the result amounts to only a few baby steps beyond “vanilla chamber music.” The only other really wild track is Summer’s solo cello arrangement of “Little Wing,” which is definitely not to be ignored.
The other arrangements were by the two “junior members” of the ensemble. Kittel took on “Hey Joe” and bit off a bit more than he could chew. “Hey Joe” is just too vocal a composition (at least the way Hendrix recorded it); and Kittel’s arrangement came across as an account of the body with little regard for the soul. Most disappointing, however, was the inclusion of Tolling’s arrangement of John McLaughlin’s “To Bop Or Not To Be.” However, I am willing to confess that my reaction may have much to do with my own personal beef with McLaughlin. I appreciate his interest in trying to work with both Tony Williams and Miles Davis, but I have never really be able to get into any of that work beyond his contributions to theBitches Brew sessions.
The bottom line, then, is that the Have You Ever Been…? suite is such an extraordinary addition to the string quartet repertoire that any differences of opinion over the other tracks on this CD are mere quibbles.