If a chipmunk could shoot a jump shot, well—that would be amazing. But the chipmunk still isn’t going to play in the NBA. Indeed, one might even wonder, just because the chipmunk can shoot a J, does that mean that he should?
Is that how it is with classical string players and jazz? The Kronos Quartet, before they were the downtown longhairs-du-jour, recorded some Thelonious Monk and some Bill Evans, and they sort of got away with it by playing like the chamber players they were—no improvising. In other cases, jazz musicians from Max Roach to David Murray have incorporated the string quartet into their music—but that was different than a string group explicitly taking on jazz.
The Turtle Island Quartet is another matter. Founded by violinist David Balakrishnan in 1985, the group has always incorporated improvisation in exploring jazz—but also various folk and pop forms via the venerable violin-violin-viola-cello format. It is no shock to learn that they have set out to play the Coltrane canon. And it is no shock to be reminded that these guys (also: Evan Price, violin; Mads Tolling, viola; Mark Summer, cello) can blow. The question remains—do you want to hear “Moment’s Notice”, “Naima”, and of course “A Love Supreme” ala Hayden?
No, yes, and yes—to be specific. Which is to say, the success of Turtle Island’s A Love Supreme is a track-by-track affair, with a wide area for disagreement.
To my ears, the quartet fares best here when it is most Kronos-ish—that is, when it is not trying to pass as a real jazz group. “Moment’s Notice”, for example, disappoints. Played much like a jazz band would play it, it features a walking bass line by the cello and a swung head arrangement that leads into solos. Without drums, of course, the group resorts to using string “chks” to simulate the backbeat of a hi-hat drum and plays two-note ‘comp patterns. While the improvising is melodically impressive and swinging by any measure, the whole package fails to justify itself. Similar fates await the Turtle versions of “Countdown” and “So What”. Like a really good Billie Holiday impression in a hotel lounge, you can admire the craft without feeling any fresh artistry.
But these tracks are not the center of this album. For most of A Love Supreme, the quartet is up to higher levels of play and transformation. Most pointedly, they have chosen to tackle Trane’s most elevated and ambitious piece of music. As played by Coltrane, “A Love Supreme” was a stunning act of elemental composition and complex improvisation. The tunes, while ingeniously connected and conceived, were not complex arrangements on the face of things. It was the passion and freedom that Coltrane’s quartet brought to the music that elevated it to spiritual, emotional, and musical heights.
Here, Balakrishnan as arranger has wisely taken a different path, giving the music a dense, shifting, and very classical sounding structure. While Coltrane’s compositional elements are all in place and there is improvisation, the bulk of “A Love Supreme” consists of a near-symphonic web of arrangement—melody, counter-melody, contrasting sections, tempo shifts, timbral experimentation, and freshly composed excitement. “Acknowledgment” (Part One of the suite), for example, seems at least 80% through-composed, with the written parts absolutely thrilling to the ear because they bring fresh ideas to (and from) the original. Even “Pursuance” (Part Two, and a blowing vehicle for much of its time) contains a lovely cadenza for its last quarter that seems less “swinging” than thoughtful. “Pursuance” (Part Three) contains a short string of up-tempo solos, but they are framed by frenzied and dense string writing that sounds as avant-garde as Trane in 1966 or 1967, and it really puts some teeth into the frequently-too-nice image of Turtle Island. “Psalm” (Part Four) is thus cut completely free from the burden of having to sound like jazz or like Coltrane. The quartet justifies itself fully.
Even better is Balakrishnan’s arrangement of “Naima”, Trane’s most purely beautiful tune. While the opening is slow and moody as you would expect, it is superb when the tune’s second chorus is given a quick-footed arrangement that neither “swings” nor sits still, letting the accompanying strings stutter and stroke and dash in and out of time until landing on an out-of-tempo piece of color writing that brings back the melody, tentatively and with feeling.
Surprisingly fine in the same vein is “My Favorite Things”, arranged by Tolling. At first, the arrangement is lockstep Trane, but after a minute the track breaks into a set of nonstop fresh ideas—first for the cello in a featured section that is not a “mere” blown solo, and then in a series of connected fantasias that lead back to the head arrangement. It is as if the “improvised middle section” were reconceived as a feature for a great arranger rather than an inspired jazz player.
There is some middle ground on A Love Supreme as well. “‘Round Midnight” is fairly standard jazz romanticizing, something that a string quartet as good as the Turtle Island does well but somewhat perfunctorily. “La Danse du Bonheur” and “Song to John” are tunes written for Trane by modern jazz players (John McLaughlin and Chick Corea/Stanley Clarke) that let the quartet get in some other flavors (Indian raga and Latin groove, respectively), while “Model Trane” is the quartet’s own tune—but based on the harmonies to “Impressions” by Trane. This is graceful but hardly essential stuff.
The verdict then? The Turtle Island Quartet playing John Coltrane is considerably more than a chipmunk firing a jumper from 18 feet. For much of its playing time, this disc features a superb chamber group putting a fresh-as-a-daisy spin on great music. Jazz fans should find fresh perspective here, and classical fans will be given beautiful, hybridized insight into a great artist from a wildly different sensibility. But too many spots feature pseudo-walking-bass-line blowing from players who—fine as they are—are no Coltrane or McCoy Tyner.
As string quartet jazz albums go, however, this may be the best ever. A left-handed compliment, to be sure, but one at least partially heartfelt.