Chamber musicians, Tierney Sutton and all that jazz

By Christopher K. Conner

The night of November 13 at McCain Auditorium the Turtle Island Quartet performed a program titled “Poets and Prayers” with Tierney Sutton.

The quartet of chamber musicians is known for pushing the boundaries of classical performance and challenging perceptions of what a chamber quartet is and what music they should perform. Turtle Island emphasizes their members’ arrangements, compositions and improvisational skills as much as their performance abilities.

Tierney Sutton is a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist. Her addition to the program provided voice to the be-bop, spiritual and popular pieces as well as enhancing the very jazz-heavy feel of the program.

In the performance, the Turtle Island Quartet walked on stage and performed a pair of pieces before Sutton joined the quartet and added vocals to most of the remaining pieces. Notably, on “Bouncing with Bud” by Bud Powell, Sutton seemed in her element. Similarly her performance on John Coltrane’s “Psalm” was natural and showed her comfort and experience in jazz performance.

The quartet used a number of non-standard play techniques to achieve a unique sound and to enhance their arrangements. Often, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit strummed his instrument ukulele style. Cellist Mark Sutton provided the walking-bass backbone of many pieces and violinists David Balakrishnan and Mateusz Smoczynski often used percussive techniques.

Much of the uniqueness of Turtle Island Quartet comes from their arrangements of popular tunes. A prime example was Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Admittedly closer to Jimi Hendrix’s performance than Dylan’s, it was far from the elevator music expected from a chamber arrangement of the same.

Conversely, the arrangement of “With You/Without You” did much to preserve the feel of George Harrison’s original, despite changing the rhythm significantly. The work’s inclusion seemed a strange choice, and required a certain measure of explanation beforehand by Summer.

A large section of the performance was devoted by a set of four Joni Mitchell tunes. Before the set, Sutton admitted that she had avoided Mitchell, thinking that her own talents were not developed enough to tackle the material. She finally acquiesced and started rehearsing with cellist Mark Summer on a cello/vocal duet arrangement of “All I Want”. Eventually four pieces, “Blue”, “Little Green” and “Carey” formed the core of “Poets and Prayers”.

As a whole, Sutton and TIQ, as Sutton referred to the Turtle Island Quartet, did an inspired job with their performances of well-known pieces. While unique, the tunes were recognizable and preserved the overall feeling of the famous performances. They seemed to enjoy stretching their legs with the arrangements, making each their own piece, while still deferring to the creative genius of the originals.

While the largest portion of the performance was devoted to others’ work, the piece “Voice of the River,” composed by founding member David Balakrishnan, showed that the group was more than capable of writing their own interesting music.

As a whole, the performance “Poets and Prayers” was enjoyable as an example of divergence from tradition while not so excessively that the basics of that tradition are completely abandoned. In that divergence, listeners that prefer to stay close to tradition may find themselves challenged to enjoy the work and attention that went into the unique arrangements and stylistic compositions of Turtle Island Quartet. The same could be said of any performance with a measure of jazz influence.

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