Quartet Will Serve Up Jazz at Arts Center

Times Staff Writer

The booking of the Turtle Island String Quartet may be a bold new step for the Orange County Performing Arts Center folks, who are presenting the acclaimed Bay Area jazz combo in two shows Saturday in the 300-seat Founders' Hall as an experiment with small-scale jazz.

But no gig presents much of a surprise anymore to the genre-bending musicians' themselves, who have participated in everything from chamber music concerts to freewheeling outdoor bluegrass festivals.

"We've played all kinds of venues," cellist Mark Summer said by phone recently from his home in San Francisco. "We were part of a chamber music series at Stanford, and we didn't know how we would go over. It was more of a classical audience. But now that we've got two records out, it seems that we are getting known to more people who go to the venues that present a lot of classical music."

From the group's resume, it's easy to understand some of the confusion among the uninitiated over just which side of the plate the Turtle Islanders are swinging from. One member labeled their sound as "classical, East Indian, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, doo-wop . . . American vernacular music."

The group's name sounds like your run-of-the-mill classical quartet, and indeed, Summer and violist Irene Sazer list between them stints with the Winnipeg Symphony, the Oakland Symphony and Ballet, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic.

Group founder, violinist and composer David Balakrishnan got his bachelor's degree in music from UCLA and a master's in music composition and education from Antioch University West in Venice, Calif.

Yet Balakrishnan and violinist Darol Anger have also served tours of duty with such jazz and folk masters as Stephane Grappelli and David Grisman.

Rather than choose between their loves for Beethoven, bluegrass and jazz, the four musicians, through very different routes, merged their interests and eventually found each other.

"As a composer, David is influenced by Beethoven, bluegrass and jazz, and that often creeps into our arrangements," Summer said.

Judging by the hard-driving rhythm that runs through their two Windham Hill albums--the self-titled 1987 debut and the current "Metropolis"--it's apparent that these musicians believe Duke Ellington's credo--"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing"--shouldn't be limited to traditional jazz instrumentation.

Although jazz history offers no other string quartets to provide role models--the Kronos Quartet, for the record, specializes in contemporary classical music, albeit spiced with off-the-wall pop-music forays--individually the Turtle Islanders found their musical inspiration with the likes of Grappelli (longtime cohort of legendary Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt), Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith.

"I'm a cellist, but I have a lot more affinity for violinists," Summer said. "In an orchestra, the cellos are usually located way across the room from the violins, which usually get the really juicy parts. But sometimes, the cello will get the most beautiful music in the whole piece, even though it may only be very brief."

It was while Summer was working in Canada that he heard of Balakrishnan and Anger and their desire to form a string quartet that played jazz. So he established contact and soon quit the symphony and moved to San Francisco to work with them full time.

For the Center's part, Saturday's shows by the Turtle Island String Quartet represent an effort to broaden its musical jukebox, heretofore dominated by orchestras, Broadway-type musicals, ballet, opera and the occasional big band or high-profile jazz act such as Wynton Marsalis.

Although Summer admitted that he will be celebrating at the time of the foursome's concert Saturday, it won't be so much because his group is the first cutting-edge jazz act to play the Center. "Several members of my family live in Orange County, so they will be coming to the concert." And there will be even more of a party atmosphere, at least for one member of this familial gathering.

"We're excited," Summer said, "because the date coincides with my second son's first birthday."

The Turtle Island String Quartet will perform at 7:30 and 10 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $16. Information: (714) 556-2787.

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