In conversation with david balakrishnan

by Eugene Marlow

David Balakrishnan is on a life-long mission: to re-interpret jazz standards in a classical music context, in this case, the string quartet. Over a period of 27 years, Balakrishnan has combined a love for rock and roll, the blues, and jazz with his deep background in classical music. The result has been one of the best known and successful ďcrossoverĒ groups: The Turtle Island String Quartet (TISQ). And they have two Grammys to prove it.

                                The Turtle Island String Quartet

The first was for their album 4+Four -- a collaboration with the Ying Quartet. The second was for their Coltrane homage, A Love Supreme. Over the years the quartet has developed a unique and internationally acclaimed musical voice, drawing on the diverse influences of folk, bluegrass, swing, bebop, funk, R&B, new age, rock, hip-hop and world music (specifically from Latin America and India) and grafting them to their deep and solid European classical roots.

Anyone who has been to a TISQ concert (including this writer) appreciates the high, virtuosic skill level of the players, the musical sophistication of the arrangements, and the quartetís passion for performance. This passion is clearly reflected in Balakrishnanís description of the TISQís evolution in the following conversation. Incidentally, at the time of this interview (February 2008), the Coltrane album had merely been nominated for a Grammy.

Letís talk about the Turtle Islandís latest album, which has gotten itself a Grammy nomination. You have done at least a dozen albums with the Turtle Island String Quartet. Yes?

Probably more, I donít really have the count in my head. Not much more than a dozen, though.

And is this the groupís second Grammy nomination?

I like to call it the fourth Grammy nomination and I will tell you why. I, myself, received two Grammy nominations for arrangements I did for Turtle Island and that to me, they seem the same. I canít help it. I so much feel I embody Turtle Island that to me it feels like our fourth. Not only that, everything we do is so much a group effort. Something I arranged has so much of everybodyís energy. So it feels like a fourth, Iíll put it that way.

Is it primarily you who does the arrangements or is it that somebody in the quartet comes up with an idea for an arrangement and then you score it? How does that process work?

It is a real fun part of the group. It would be very obvious for any other jazz band, but for Turtle Island, because it is a string quartet, that whole dynamic takes on a very interesting turn -- due to the whole tradition of how composers from the past wrote their greatest work for the string quartet form and put up this very staggering and imposing body of work.

Being in a string quartet we donít want to go up there and dabble and be a gimmick. We wouldnít have lasted this long if we had done that. I started the group with a compositional approach. I saw that the string quartet was really at least half due to the composerís involvement as it was to the musicianís playing. From the very get-go this was a big part of what the group was about. Having set the tone by writing this music I quickly discovered that obviously players were required to make it come alive, to make it live. This meant that the players would have to be composers and arrangers themselves, that they had to come with that personality.

The playing, the improvising, and the understanding of the harmonic language of jazz, these are things that you get when you have a compositional mind. Everybody who has ever been in the group has composed and arranged for the group. Having said that, I have always felt there was continuity by my having kept a sense of keeping the bar really high and making sure we focused on what the group stands for. We now have this wonderful body of material that we self-generated. I am very proud of it because it so represents my very personal compositional aesthetic.

You started this in 1985?

Actually before. For me it goes back to 1981. Thatís when I had come to a crisis as a musician. It was so very early for jazz string players and there were, of course, the greats out there, such as Stťphane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Joe Venuti was still alive at the time. And the history of jazz violin was there but still very scarce, and I had developed quite a wide range of interests at that point due to studying jazz and classical composition in college.

What led you to study jazz in college?

It has to do with being a kid growing up in the sixties and seventies and discovering rock and roll and wanting to play that on the violin. That is what got me off the page and that is the place that set the tone of my life musically. I saw this guy named Jerry Goodman, famous for playing an electrically amplified violin, who was performing in a group called The Flock, and he had hair down to his waist and he was waving it around playing rock violin. I saw that and I said that is what I want to do, clear as a bell.

Like comedian John Belushi really wanting to be a rock star?

Exactly the same thing. That got me off the page and learning how to play blues on the violin. There was a history for blues that has always been part of the violin, like blues singer and jazz violinist Sugarcane Harris, Papa John Creach, and various players like that. Jerry Goodman was the rock version of that. I got very excited by this group called the Mahavishnu Orchestra more in college years -- that Goodman also played in with John McLaughlin, a great guitar player.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra was not the first jazz-rock fusion band, but arguably one of the best. Not only did they have a violin player, but they also were using Indian music. My father is from India. So it was such a complete kind of connection to me in so many ways that I just fell head-over-heels in love with that. And because of that it took me out of the rock thing and through McLaughlin, especially, I started realizing there was a whole depth of language that came from the jazz tradition which is a much more sophisticated harmonic language, of course, which dove-tailed with my college studies at the time in classical composition.

Then the last thing that happened was I came across a group called the David Grisman Quintet that was for me another head turning situation. Up to that point I was used to thinking of jazz violin or rock as playing very loud with big amplifiers taller than me and using all these electronic toys. I heard this quintet and they all played entirely acoustic instruments and had all the same energy and drive, but were all so dedicated to the acoustic sound of their instruments.

So the stage was set. That is what happened to me when I was starting a masterís degree. I had all of these influences and yet I couldnít find out who I was in all of this. The string quartet became the answer. It became a place where I could take everything: the compositional depth of the style, the focus on the acoustic sound of the instruments, the blending of folk and jazz and classical tradition phrasing, and then bringing in the Indian music. It worked perfectly because Indian music is so much about subtleties of intonation and the string quartet is about instruments that can play in between the notes, so to speak. There is no temper tuning. It just allows for so many things for me to work with.

Then the last step was the fact that at the time I didnít have a string quartet to perform with, so I would just over dub all the parts myself. There werenít players who could play this style the way that I was coming from. Luckily for me, gradually the players started showing up who could do it, especially Mark Summer, the cellist. When he arrived in town he heard what I was doing and at first he was not quite excited about this. He had more of a strong tradition in classical music and he was a bit put off by the idea of being in a string quartet like this. I actually had no idea. I had never been in a string quartet myself, I just was writing music for it. I didnít know really what it was to be in a professional string quartet. I found that out later. It has another level of personal, what is the word, family dynamics that are very intense that Summerís was hip to.

In my own listening experience I have found few classical players who could improvise and essentially bridge the gap between classical and jazz. Do you agree with that?

That is why I was going on and on about my history. For all four of us in the quartet we became excited about and attracted to improvising and getting off the pages as children or very early teens. The transition took place in our formative years. Thatís whatís really important if you are going really be professional level at improvising. As you know, it is a very demanding style, every bit as demanding as playing a Paganini or a Brahms concerto to really play in the jazz style at a high level. I think that is no longer news to people, right? There is more awareness of the depth of the jazz style in terms of it being artistically equivalent, at least in my mind, to classical playing I am sure some people will argue. So it is important you begin that training as a violinist early so that when you go to ďjazz it upĒ you are not crossing over from something you know to something you donít know. You are actually building from the ground up and it is part of the way you hear and the way you express on both sides.

Would you agree that part of the reason for the TISQís success is that there are not a lot of people out there who can do both?

Right, exactly right. It is also part of the mission of the group to advocate for the expansion, to pass the craft on and to encourage a wider range. When I look out there and I see all these string players and I see my own kids and I see high school kids and I see what is going on, I know that it is going to be an increasingly hard sell for young people to be playing Vivaldi on the violin. And this approach to the string instrument allows for a more contemporary and a personal way of expressing. So instead of playing everything off the page, you are playing something that you are playing from your heart and your sensibility. I think that in the long run -- and it is not just us, there are other people doing it too -- the more this happens we can get in there and change this, open the door wider stylistically. So maybe twenty or thirty years from now there will be orchestras out there that can swing, where the string players will all have enough knowledge of how to play a swing rhythm that doesnít sound hokey or contrived or . . .

Or stiff.

Or stiff. We are Americans and so why shouldnít we breathe with that sensibility? We are listening to it all the time. It is on the TV, it is in the pop music, it is in the dentistís office. Why shouldnít that be how we play? We donít only because we are trained so specifically away from it.

There are a lot of groups mixing it up musically. There are lots of folks doing it and this is not just in the last few minutes. This has been going on for twenty, thirty years. Would you agree with that?

At least. Absolutely! And longer. If you really look deep you will find that it has been going on since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like what Bartok was doing? He was hanging out with his Hungarian folk people, getting into it and using it in his music. It just so happens that the players he was forced to write for had no idea how to play that music. We were in Latvia and heard these guys playing Bartok and it was like nothing I had experienced. They were playing it like they really lived it because they understood the folk-root depth. That is just the natural interplay between human folk roots music and the desire to reach for a more refined artistic view. They are both valid and it is natural that they would reach across each other. It gets into the idea of purity versus diversity and they both have valid points to them, but at the same time they can get rigid either side, and you want to have both.

You seem to have found an audience, clearly. You have found an audience for your music and for your particular sound. Where is that audience coming from?

We have been doing this for twenty-three years and we have done well to survive. I make a living of this and I am very proud of that. I really appreciate the support we have gotten from a number of areas. A ground swell of support comes from probably the string community. They are the ones who really understand what we are doing and see the importance of it and understand the significance of what is going on. Also, the jazz community recognizes how what we do can possibly expand the knowledge of the jazz tradition to more of the classical audience. That is when Turtle Island is working at its best. It is helping jazz bands learn about being more open to what the classical aesthetic is and vice versa with classical audiences opening up to how Coltrane can be regarded as a great composer alongside Shostakovitch.

Letís talk about the recent album. Youíve done a lot, including several Brubeck repertoire re-interpretations, and now you have the Coltrane album. I noticed in your concert listing something about Duke Ellington. Is this old repertoire or new?

Oh, no. It is really brand new. In fact it is just off the printing press. We are just working it up this week. We are getting ready to play with a great vibes player, Stefon Harris, and the core material will be drawn from this really interesting period of Duke Ellingtonís musical career. Do you know about his sacred concerts?

I know some of that music.

I am, to be honest, just coming to it in the last two months to prepare for this. What happens in our careers is that when we put together projects the first part of it can happen a year and a half before we have even gotten together and we are sitting around talking about what could we do. And we come up with these ideas and you hope that they are clear enough to inspire people to be interested, but loose enough to let our creative process go -- which is going to happen in a more spontaneous present time manner.

So we had this idea that there was this existing music Ellington had done in the late part of his career that was very much on the spiritual side and it kind of rang a bell. We had a great feeling for making A Love Supreme, and that has a similar kind of idea to it -- a jazz musician presenting something that has spiritual significance and also has great musical value. So here we are today. What is interesting for me, Ellington evidently did three concerts of this material at the end of his career and he felt it was the finest music he had ever done. He was really struggling to do essentially what you call crossover. He was trying to integrate gospel and classical music and jazz and klezmer music and all these styles and trying to look for some kind of spiritual undercurrents to link it together. It was all performed in churches. I think his was one of the first concerts to play in San Francisco at Glide Memorial Church. This is all in the late sixties.

The timing of it was rather unfortunate because Duke was such a commercial musician at his core. I donít know the word for it -- because of the times of the Civil Rights movement and all this kind of intense need to recognize the African-American tradition and all that -- it kind of hit against that particular political situation. So when I listen to the music it is hard for me to say that is Duke Ellingtonís greatest music, which is the way he felt. Nonetheless, there are a lot of beautiful aspects to this music and some gems. One of the pieces weíre playing is a gorgeous piece called ďCome SundayĒ that he had actually written earlier as part of another suite. The recording I have been listening to a lot is with Mahalia Jackson singing, and it is just incredible, gorgeous, deep music.

Is this a program that hasnít been recorded yet?

Absolutely. Not only that, it hasnít been performed yet.


It is just coming up and in the tradition of jazz it is happening in a very spontaneous manner and just like I said, just hot off the press.

Why Stefon Harris? Iíve interviewed him for I think I know what the answer is, but I would like to know your answer.

Stefon is a person who understands both sides of the equation really well, the classical side and the jazz side and that is really important and he has the desire to reach that way. That is what we look for. Kindred souls who can understand the beauty in both sides and have put energy into both sides. He is one of those rare great players who have done that and of course to work with a musician like that is fantastic, it is a great opportunity. I donít think there is a lot out there for vibes and string quartet that I have heard, so Iím hopeful it strikes a chord, to use a bad pun. I think it will.

Why did you choose Coltrane as a theme for your current album?

I would answer that by going back to some of the things I was saying earlier about how the string quartet stands for some of the most noble expressions of classical composers of Europe. I know a lot of people think -- and you probably would agree -- that you have to include A Love Supreme as being one the main, greatest works of the jazz canon. Not only as a jazz piece, but it also gets into a higher realm in terms of the way it transforms jazz language away from European harmonic language into more recent Indian and African rhythms. It is one of those landmark recordings. So thatís part of it.

The other thing was how could a string quartet ever come close to reproducing a record like that, a sound like that? The pure challenge of it, to love something so much was a sound I lusted after, it drove me. When I was learning about jazz, especially having moved beyond the jazz/rock thing and understanding there is whole world of beautiful music in the classical tradition, Coltrane was one of the first sounds I came across and, God, it was so beautiful and I was so in love with the way he had this crying heart with this incredible language. I just couldnít believe what I was hearing. As a violinist I wanted so desperately to sound that way in some way. In trying to go towards that over and over, over years of practicing and coming to that again and again, I kind of finally came to the place where I realized you couldnít really ever sound like John Coltrane. Only he does. But in the process of reaching for that you find your own voice. It is partly a big part of how I felt I found my voice: falling in love with his sound. So to be as a composer looking for a way to set this piece was quite a challenge. I am really attached to it and proud of it and of course the rest of the record has great stuff on it as well. We used that as the center piece and we are looking to take different periods of Coltraneís musical life and influences that led to his work and then what came after is the theme of the record.

I listened to the album and it sounded more classical to me than the previous album, although clearly it has jazz elements in it. Would you agree?

For what we were doing, for our history it does definitely go a little bit classical, you can say that, especially A Love Supreme which is a very rare situation for us. The first movement is actually Coltraneís entire solo set to the string quartet. None of us are improvising and yet it was improvised by Coltrane. What that was all about was during that period they had discovered modal music, Indian and African music and yet they were such harmonic European language guys. Coltrane, especially, had developed this whole way of playing where he would use the grounding of the tonality and then go off into unrelated areas, in and out, and create this swirl of motion over this pedal point of McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison.

What I did was take McCoy and Jimmy and let the voices follow his modulatory exploration. You get to hear Coltraneís melodic genius in a whole different way just by my setting of his solo. It ends up in places that sound to me like Sibelius and Shostakovitch. I think it shows a little bit more of that side. At the same time, it is based on jazz first and foremost, and that was a challenge to find that joining point. Normally in jazz you play much more loose solos and let go of the written page.

It felt a little more rooted. That was my feeling. Whatís next for the TISQ?

Like I said, we have been doing tons of collaborations and one of the things we just finished was playing with guitarist Leo Kottke, a great finger style guitar player, a total roots-folk player who is a great musician who doesnít read music and is not somebody who is a solo guitarist. He is actually quite famous. He was a big star of the rock scene in the seventies and has continued to evolve himself creatively. I just love his music and I love him. He is a great person, a real genius. Youíve heard him a million times. He has done a lot of movie music that you wonít even know, like the soundtrack for ďDays of Heaven.Ē That collaboration took us in a direction that was much more roots, folk, fiddly style for us. The next thing is we are about to start our month long tour with Stefon Harris. That is going to be another, totally different way of playing.

You sound quite passionate about all this.

I feel a lot of passion today. We have been rehearsing today and I kind of have a full steam of love for this group and what we are doing.

Terrific. Thank you David Balakrishnan.


April 22, 2008 · 1 comment

  • 1 Pete Frystak // May 08, 2008 at 02:36 AM
    I grew up with David in Westchester......... Went to U.C.L.A. with him !! I am very proud of him and his accomplishments!! He is very talented.... God Bless him AND God Bless his mother!!! She was VERY instrumental in his interest in music!!