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Turtle Island gives Miles Davis the string-quartet treatment

Special to The Times

Think string quartet, and jazz is not the first thing that comes to mind.

The primal classical chamber ensemble, it has no percussion, no specifically chording instruments, little jazz repertoire and even less history of improvisation.

All of which makes the Turtle Island String Quartet one of the music world’s rarities. Along with the Kronos Quartet and some lesser known ensembles, the TISQ has actively pursued the goal of bringing the string quartet to jazz, and vice versa. On Saturday at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, the quartet took on the thorny task of adapting music associated with Miles Davis in a program titled “Blue in Green.”

On the face of it, that’s a potentially quixotic notion. The selections dated to the late ‘40s and late ‘50s, a Davis period oriented toward melodic lyricism and the spare use of sounds and silences. String quartets, with their diverse potential, are fully capable of expressing those qualities. But the TISQ orchestrations took more intricate musical paths, filled with inner motion, sudden shifts of accent, a general avoidance of simple melodic exposition and an absence of rhythmic drive.

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“Seven Steps to Heaven,” a piece built around seven melodic accents, might have been titled “Seventy-Seven Steps to Heaven” in the TISQ version. “Boplicity,” plagued by questionable intonation, lost the line’s cool, laid-back qualities. And “Nardis” had less to do with Davis than with Philip Glass-like repetitions.

On the plus side, there was some fine individual improvising. Beyond that, however (in a program that also included works by Frank Zappa, Randy Brecker and others), the jazz connections were illusory, eclipsed by too many layers of classical style.


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