‘Homage’ Is Given New Sound

<i> Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times</i>

When pianist-composer Billy Taylor was asked by the Juilliard String Quartet to write a work that blended jazz and classical music, he knew right where to go for his inspiration: his early jazz roots.

In the mid-’40s, when Taylor, now 71, was establishing himself as a jazz pianist to be reckoned with, he worked with four string players who have since achieved renown: violinists Stuff Smith and Eddie South, and bassists Oscar Pettiford and Slam Stewart.

It’s around the disparate styles of these four players, and such classical composers as Maurice Ravel and Bela Bartok, that Taylor has crafted “Homage” (for String Quartet and Jazz Trio). The three-movement piece premiered in March, 1990, at the Madison Civic Center in Madison, Wis., which commissioned a piece from the Juilliard Quartet to celebrate the center’s 10th anniversary.


The piece, which has yet to be recorded, has been played numerous times by Taylor’s trio and the Juilliard Quartet. But the latter’s schedule is “horrendous,” making consistent performances impossible, said Manhattanite Taylor. “So about a year ago, I looked around for another quartet,” he said.

That group is the Turtle Island String Quartet, which, along with Taylor’s trio, performs “Homage” on Friday at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The two ensembles will also each deliver an individual set.

“Homage,” when played by Turtle Island--a jazz-based ensemble composed of Darol Anger and David Balakrishnan, violins, Katrina Wreede, viola, and Mark Summer, cello--takes on new sensibilities, Taylor said. “They bring something really personal to it. It’s like playing two pieces,” he said.

This dissimilitude is most striking in the two groups’ interpretation of the written passages of “Homage,” which contain a good deal of space for improvisation. The players in Turtle Island, with whom the pianist recorded on the band’s “On the Town” Windham Hill Jazz release, “have an intimate knowledge of the jazz vocabulary, which they bring to the work,” Taylor said.

Balakrishnan, reached at a tour stop in Manchester, N. H., said he and his cohorts render “Homage” more in the manner of a jazz sax section than a string quartet.

“We play with a lighter sound, less vibrato, with more jazz inflection,” he said. “I have heard the Juilliard play it, and I feel when we play it, there’s less demarcation between jazz and classical idioms. I think we blend more into what Billy’s group is doing. There’s a more integrated sound.”


On the other hand, Taylor said, the Juilliard Quartet does not have that kind of jazz understanding. “But they bring a virtuosity to the piece, which is their intimate knowledge of chamber music from Elliot Carter to Mozart. That’s exciting to me,” he said.

The improvisational sections--where the composer has written solo passages for the string players--find the two violinists in Turtle Island solidly connecting with Taylor’s crew mates--bassist Victor Gaskin and drummer Bobby Thomas Jr.

“Darol and David come to improvisation from different points; they approach rhythm differently, but they somehow meet Victor and Bobby in a middle ground, and it comes together like a jazz band,” Taylor said.

“Billy lets us take long solos,” Balakrishnan said. “We take what’s on the printed page and expand it, imbue it with our own personalities, and Billy encourages that.”

Taylor, who has a bachelor’s degree in music and a Ph.D in music education, is known for his regular appearances as a segment host on CBS’ “Sunday Morning.” His latest trio album is “Dr. T” on GRP Records.

Among his previous efforts melding classical and jazz is “Suite for Jazz Piano and Orchestra,” commissioned in 1973 for the Utah Symphony by its then-conductor, Maurice Abravanel, so he was on familiar ground in writing “Homage.”


The themes of the three movements of “Homage” draw on the musical styles of Smith, South, Pettiford and Stewart, as Taylor remembers them.

“The first movement is a jazz waltz that evokes aspects of Stuff, who had a blues style, and Eddie, who leaned toward classical playing, and actually Slam, too, though on cello, not on bass,” Taylor said. “The second movement, which starts slowly, gets faster, then gets slower again, is a little more tongue-in-cheek, and is really evocative of both violinists. I kept mixing them up in my mind.

“The third movement climaxes with a duet between Summer and Gaskin which reminded me of the way Oscar, who also played cello, would trade phrases with a bass player.”

Taylor was asked to briefly reminisce about the four jazz greats to whom “Homage” is dedicated.

“Eddie led the first group that I went on the road with, in 1944,” Taylor recalled. “At the same time, Stuff Smith had a trio. They were friendly rivals. When Eddie would go see Stuff, Stuff would play with a more classical feeling than he usually did, and when Stuff came to see Eddie, Eddie would play the blues and other things that he didn’t play much.

“Oscar was in my trio when I was the house pianist at Birdland, from 1949 to ’51. He was one of the swingingest bass players I ever worked with in my life, and some of the best things that I ever did were with him. And Slam was a member of my trio for a while.”


Taylor noted that one of the pleasures of playing “Homage” is that it keeps changing. “It evolves from performance to performance,” he said. “What you hear now will be much different from what it sounded like a year ago.”

Billy Taylor’s trio and the Turtle Island String Quartet play “Homage” at 8 p.m. Friday at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Tickets, $14 to $25. (310) 825-2101.