The Turtle Island Quartet presents a new program centered on the spirit of Charlie Parker. Although only one of his tunes is included, these four impeccable musicians share Bird’s penchant for expanding parameters and the results of their alchemy are just as golden. Like the other jazzy ingots herein—namely, “Subconscious-Lee” (Lee Konitz) and “Miles Ahead” (Miles Davis)—“Dewey Square” makes artful use of extended techniques. Violinist/founder David Balakrishnan employs scratch tones for a delightfully percussive effect while cellist Malcolm Parson (who, along with violinist Alex Hargreaves, is new to the group) plays the role of bassist via robust pizzicato. The in-house arrangements alone boast of interdisciplinary genius at play, allowing for plenty of improvisation to show the quartet’s combinatory properties.
The Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django” gets a welcome spin and in its central section evokes the fluidity of Stéphane Grappelli, whom Balakrishnan calls a “patron saint” of the quartet. Yet Balakrishnan’s own compositions are the support beams of this soundly engineered structure. They sometimes reveal an underlying quirkiness, as in his “Rebirth of the Holy Fool,” which puns on Davis’s Birth of the Cool, and “Squawk,” taking its inspiration from a mysterious incident in 2011 when the town of Beebe, Arkansas awoke on New Year’s Day to find that 5,000 dead blackbirds had fallen from the sky. The composer navigates these images with delicate rigor. His “Aeroelasticity: Harmonies of Impermanence,” however, is the album’s centerpiece. A multivalent suite in four movements, it hums with the very propulsive energies that inspired it. Influences range from Indian classical music to mathematical properties (the piece is, after all, dedicated to his father, a UCLA professor of engineering), bringing solid returns on his emotional investments. There’s a backwater charm lurking within and a feeling of memory tying it all together. Violist Benjamin von Gutzeit’s “Propeller” is something of a sister piece, as it deals equally with mechanisms in motion, if on a more intimate scale. Its balance of curves and straights is emblematic of what this quartet is capable of at its finest.
(This review originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)