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Turtle-Island-Quartet

turtle island quartet, from left: david balakrishnan, mateusz smoczynski, mark summer and benjamin von gutzeit.

About seven years ago, the genre-busting Turtle Island String Quartet dropped the “String” from its name. It was perhaps an incidental detail to some. The lineup still adhered to the requisite string quartet instrumentation of cello, viola and two violins. But after nearly three decades of journeying though bebop, swing, bluegrass, folk, Euro-classical, Indian classical and a handful of other musical styles and strategies, the time came to remind the world Turtle Island was anything but a conventional string ensemble.

“Because of the way the group is constructed, a string quartet with four members equally grounded in jazz improvisation and classical technique, you’re automatically dealing with musicians who are rebels,” said TIQ violinist and founder David Balakrishnan. “We’re talking about rebels in the sense they are doing something unique with their instruments.”

Underscoring that notion was the first album released under the modified TIQ moniker, 2007’s A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane – a baker’s dozen of tunes

penned or popularized by the legendary saxophonist. Among them is the entirety of Coltrane’s immortal A Love Supreme album and shorter psalm-like pieces such as the gorgeous Naima. The later was first recorded by Turtle Island for its sophomore album Metropolis in 1989. Ironically, the year also marked one of the last times the quartet performed in Central Kentucky. Its long overdue return comes Tuesday with a collaborative concert featuring pop-cabaret songsmith Nellie McKay at the Grand Theater in Frankfort.

“We try to make a point about music in the 21st century,” said Balakrishnan. “We’re saying you can have a group like Turtle Island playing in a string quartet covering this range of stylistic material that is trying to find its own identity inside of that. But the music also tells a story beyond the elements of those styles.”

With those varying styles takes has been a roster of equally diverse TIQ collaborators. The list includes guitar great Leo Kottke, Cuban jazz clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, jazz pianist Kenny Barron, the Manhattan Transfer and the Parsons Dance Company. McKay is an intriguing addition to the club. A songwriter of exacting wit and emotive clarity, she also possesses a scholarly command of song traditions that stretch from Loretta Lynn to Ella Fitzgerald.

“You know, string quartets… we’re pretty heady,” Balakrishnan said. “Now, Nellie goes into more of an indie-pop territory. She’s cutting more of the middle of the grain and yet she’s got that kind of ’30 s-revisited thing, as well. She’s like the second coming of Marlene Dietrich. Nellie is so into her. It’s really fun to watch. I think she probably dreams about her.”

The collaborative program TIQ and McKay will present on Tuesday, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, is fashioned after the German Weimar cabaret of the late 1920s but extends its repertoire across continents for songs by Billie Holiday and Billy Strayhorn.

The alliance will also carry over to the new TIQ album, Confetti Man, which has McKay singing a Balakrishnan arrangement of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit Send Me No Flowers (most famously recorded by Doris Day in the 1964 film of the same name).

“In some ways, Turtle Island’s game face is to prove we can solo over Coltrane tunes and survive,” Balakrishnan said. “And we really take pride in that. But Nellie is coming from a different place. There is this incredible theatrical side to her. She’s a songwriter and she’s carefully crafted how she puts all this music together in the Nellie McKay style.

“Some of the stuff I love the most is when we’re playing a chart like Send Me No Flowers. It’s a very sparse, dreamy thing. What I get from Nellie is she sounds sweet with a certain amount of sarcasm, a certain in-your-faceness that’s right below the surface.

“Nellie is such a joy to hang with. She is fresh and completely spontaneous in the way she lives and makes music.”

Turtle Island Quartet with Nellie McKay perform ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing’ at 7:30 p.m. Sept 23 at the Grand Theater, 308 St. Clair in Frankfort. Tickets are $30-$45. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org



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