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THE TORTOISE AND THE DARETURTLE ISLAND STRING QUARTET WANTS CLASSICAL MUSIC TO GET JAZZED

Several years ago, jazz pianist Billy Taylor received an unusual request. The prestigious Juilliard String Quartet asked him to compose a piece that combined jazz with classical music. Although George Gershwin and Aaron Copland had explored the jazz-classical overlap, the area was largely uncharted territory.

The work Taylor came up with was his three-movement Suite for Jazz Trio and String Quartet. In it the pianist tried to meld improvisation--the spontaneous composition that is the essence of jazz--with classical forms. Taylor's finished work hinged on the ability of the Juilliard strings to improvise.

Not surprisingly, the fiddlers from Juilliard looked down their noses at that activity. Taylor began to worry. He and the quartet had booked a concert tour featuring the work. At the last minute, the Juilliard Quartet discovered time conflicts and canceled the tour. But Taylor was determined to have his new work performed. That's when he called violinist Darol Anger and Turtle Island String Quartet.

"The Juilliard String Quartet did a really great job with Taylor's piece in a lot of ways," Anger says during a telephone interview from his home in Oakland, California. "But they had to write out their solos. They wouldn't improvise their parts."

Jazz improvisation is what sets Turtle Island String Quartet apart from the typical classical string foursome. Ironically, the skill that the quartet prides itself on existed in classical music centuries before jazz ever appeared.

"Classical musicians used to improvise," Anger says. "Beethoven and Mozart were great improvisers. But that's been lost in classical music."

As a string quartet that plays jazz, Turtle Island wasn't sure when it began who its audience would be. Leonard Feather, king of jazz critics, heaped on praise when he reviewed the band's performance. But not all the attention came from the jazz corner. "There was heavy response from the classical music world," Anger says.

"People who listen to classical music are starting to appreciate the level jazz has risen to. Our quartet put us right in the middle. We seemed to represent a wedding of the two kinds of music."

With a foot in both the jazz and classical camps, Anger and the rest of the group have an unconventional perspective on why the classical audience is turning an attentive ear to new musical blends.

"Classical music has run into a wall. You can only play 100-year-old pieces the same way so many times," Anger says. "Classical music needs an infusion of new strength, and it's finding it in the rhythms and improvisational capabilities of jazz."

The Turtle Islanders don't take all the credit for their unusual mix. Kronos Quartet, a "new-wave" ensemble from San Francisco, was the first string quartet to take a stab at playing jazz. With their punk hairdos and black leather, the members of Kronos shattered the notion that jazz and classical music were separate worlds with the album The Kronos String Quartet Plays Thelonious Monk. Now Turtle Island is following Kronos' lead.

"Kronos has done incredible things for classical music and the string quartet form," admits Anger. "It was great that Kronos put out an album of Monk's compositions, but the record wasn't true to the spirit of jazz. Nobody was swinging."

Although jazz is Turtle Island's major influence, the group's music also contains hints of country, bluegrass and a strange concoction from Anger's past known as "dawg music." The creation of mandolin player and bluegrass rebel Dave Grisman, dawg music uses typical bluegrass instruments--acoustic guitar, mandolin and violin--to perform the rhythms and improvisations of jazz.

A college-trained violinist who began his career playing bluegrass, Anger was startled by Grisman's new music and soon joined Grisman's quintet. Like Turtle Island, Grisman's group didn't fit into any neat stylistic hole. Jazz audiences considered the group's sound "banjo music," while bluegrass fans thought the group had strayed from its backwoods roots into outer space.

"Dawg music never really caught fire," laments Anger with a giggle. "But we all went on to establish ourselves in other kinds of music. Some chose to be sessionmen in Nashville where they could stay home with their families. I decided to take on the string quartet format and try to apply the same improvisational ideas of dawg music."

After Grisman's group disbanded in the late Seventies, Anger stayed in contact with David Balakrishnan, a violinist who had also spent time in Grisman's band. In 1986, the two men decided to form a jazz group based on the violin.

"It didn't really come together until I met cellist Mark Summer at a music festival up in Canada," recalls Anger, who spent the early Eighties playing with new-age supergroup the Montreux Band. "He had just quit the symphony and was looking for other things to do."

Summer joined in 1987 and the trio grew to a quartet later that year when violist Irene Sazer (later replaced by Katrina Wreede) came aboard. Both Summer and Sazer were ex-symphony players anxious to perform more than what was written on the page. Signed to Windham Hill Records, the same label that released Anger's solo discs and those of his Montreux Band, Turtle Island's self-titled debut came out in 1988. The group's latest release On the Town is a collection of swing tunes that are granted new life courtesy of Turtle Island's improvisational approach. The band roars through every tune in high gear. The highlight is Anger's high-energy soloing on Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm." On the Town also marks the reunion of the quartet and old friend Billy Taylor, a musician the Turtle Islanders haven't worked with since they subbed for the Juilliard Quartet. Taylor's trio shows up on three of On the Town's cuts. The bass, drum and piano mix well with the output of the four string players.

Now that it's adapted swing classics, it's no surprise that the band is ready to take on more adventurous material.

"We've just finished working on some symphonic material," says Anger. "We recorded it as a chamber orchestra. We overdubbed until we had as many as 18 instruments going. As for the writing style and the rhythms, it's not a jazz album at all. But there's a lot of improvising going on."

Turtle Island String Quartet will perform at Scottsdale Center for the Arts on Friday, October 11, and at Arcosanti Amphitheatre in Cordes Junction on Saturday, October 12. Showtimes are 8 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively.

"Beethoven and Mozart were great improvisers. But that's been lost in classical music."

"Classical music needs an infusion of new strength, and it's finding it in the rhythms and improvisational capabilities of jazz."

"It was great that Kronos put out an album of Monk's compositions, but the record wasn't true to the spirit of jazz. Nobody was swinging.

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Dave McElfresh