courtesy of Naxos of America
Yesterday Azica Records released the latest recording of performances by the Turtle Island Quartet, an album entitled Bird’s Eye View. This group was formed in 1985; but the only founding member still playing in it is David Balakrishnan, currently holding second chair. The other performers are now Alex Hargreaves (first violin), Benjamin von Gutzeit (viola), and Malcolm Parson (cello). Balakrishnan is also continuing in the capacity of creating both arrangements and original compositions, the most recent of which is a four-movement suite that begins this album, Aeroelasticity: Harmonies Of Impermanence. Both von Gutzeit and Parson also contribute arrangements on this recording.
Turtle Island has distinguished itself as a string quartet that plays as a jazz combo, improvising from charts rather than simply bringing new scores into the chamber music repertoire. With that as context, the “Bird” of the album title has nothing to do with any of those avian creatures cataloged in music by Olivier Messiaen. Instead, it refers to saxophonist Charlie Parker, whose extraordinarily sophisticated improvisations demand the same level of attention that is warranted for composers from Messiaen all the way back to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The new album thus combines Balakrishnan’s original pieces with one arrangement (by Parson) of a Parker classic, “Dewey Square.” There are also selections by three jazz masters, all of whom found their own original paths in the wake of Parker’s innovations. These are Lee Konitz, Miles Davis, and John Lewis, no one of whom can be confused with the others (or, for that matter, with Parker).
I have to confess that, while I usually enjoy Balakrishnan’s efforts as a composer, my real attention gets hooked when the group takes one of my favorites and puts their own spin on it. This has been the case since the first track of the very first release (on Windham Hill Records), where they developed their own distinctive approach to Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” which had been given a stunning “all-star” treatment on Nelson’s own album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth. On Bird’s Eye View the least convincing of the “old masters” arrangements is Balakrishnan’s treatment of Lewis’ “Django.” This should not surprise anyone familiar with the original, which almost seemed as if the music had more to do with the sonorities of the Modern Jazz Quartet (particularly Milt Jackson’s vibraphone work) than with its thematic content. On the other hand the homophony of Davis’ “Miles Ahead” actually seems to improve with the more uniform instrumental resources of a string quartet.
Most important, however, is that, for all of the personnel changes, the group still has its “jazz voice;” and it is for that “voice” that we want to listen to Turtle Island in the first place!