Turtle Island Quartet: Bird’s Eye View

Bird's Eye View

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.)

Pluck and Verve: Jerusalem Quartet at Cornell

(Photo credit: Felix Broede)

Jerusalem Quartet
March 25, 2017
Cornell University, Barnes Hall

Since the mid-1990s, the Jerusalem Quartet has been slinging its unmistakable tone and adroit programming to audiences worldwide, and at last to Cornell University’s Barnes Hall on March 25, 2017. What distinguishes Jerusalem Quartet from its umpteen contemporaries is its interlocking tonal spread, meticulous attention to rhythm and balance of repertoires. For this performance, these spirited musicians presented a trifecta of drama, whimsy and lyricism.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in F minor set the stage not only musically, but also technically, as idiosyncrasies came immediately to the forefront. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky brought a clarion register that meshed superbly with second violinist Sergei Bresler’s warmer colors, while violist Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov completed the picture with an organic rusticity and dance-like undercurrent. From the opening movement’s latticed spaces to the folkish fourth, the playing navigated every change of pace with the adaptability of a racecar driver. The Bach-inspired fugue of the second movement, with its gyroscopic core, was especially moving, and snuggled nicely against the conversational third. Though a pleasant piece with which to begin, one that showed its composer’s penchant for cellular invention and negotiations of ferocity and finesse, it was but an appetizer to the main course of Sergey Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 1 in B minor. This compact yet multifaceted gem spanned only three movements, upending convention by ending with the slowest. That final Andante was as songlike as it was ashen and overcast. Like a memory snagged on a branch, it resisted our attempts to seize it in a most beguiling way. From root to branch, it maintained integrity with solid growth and showed off the flair of cellist Zlotnikov’s way with (and without) a bow. This was preceded by an Allegro which, with abundant rhetorical flourishes, felt like Prokofiev guiding us through a maze, running down certain passages and tiptoeing through others.

After intermission, we luxuriated in the depths of Antonín Dvořák’s Quartet No. 13 in G major. Among the composer’s final quartets, it reaffirmed the fact that few understood the sonority of the genre more than he did. Delightful yet weighed by the ante of human contemplation, every dance-like gesture in the surrounding movements only served to emphasize the anthemic beauty of the Adagio. Like a restless dream during hibernation, it changed colors and textures with almost surreal seamlessness and epitomized what violist Kam in his program notes cited as their goal of showing the string quartet as a “singular instrument.” Likewise the encore, which presented the Allegretto pizzicato from Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in the manner of master clockmakers offering a glimpse of their craft.

Uniting all of this was a sense of hearing not only composers but also performers unafraid to think out loud. Like a great jazz performance, it reminded us that even within the borders of prescribed music there is infinite room for variation and interpretation.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Keller Quartett: Ligeti String Quartets / Barber Adagio (ECM New Series 2197)

Ligeti Barber

Keller Quartett
Ligeti String Quartets / Barber Adagio

András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Zsófia Környei violin (on String Quartet No. 2)
Zoltán Gál viola
Judit Szabó violoncello
Recorded June 2007 and October 2011 (String Quartet No. 2), Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“How times have changed,” notes Paul Griffiths in his liner text to this album of string quartets by György Ligeti (1923-2006) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981). “How a recording can change them.” Indeed, at the bows of the Keller Quartett, the capabilities of two violins, one viola, and a cello are intensely magnified by performance and composition in equal measure.

Keller Quartett

Ligeti’s single-movement String Quartet No. 1 (1953/54) takes the title Métamorphoses nocturnes. It opens the program with a DNA helix, from which a single aberrant rung breaks free as a model for the others. The Kellers handle such structural changes with graceful science as warped dances and dizzying draws stoke the embers of continuity from beginning to end. Pizzicati become tactile pressure points, signs that the titular metamorphoses take place in those interims where dreams expand into days’ worth of experience yet take up only a sweep of the second hand. Darker textures at the center of this quartet prefigure Henryk Górecki’s own by decades, while the unforgettable slap pizzicato from cello marks the path with fortitude. The sheer variety of textures is beguiling enough. That Ligeti is able to combine them so organically takes a depth of attention of which few are possessed. A flock of harmonic glissandi toward the end elicit some of the most atmospheric writing for the medium, lasting only as long as the thought to include them before the cello snakes into affirmation and quiet recoil.

The undefeated Adagio from Barber’s opus 11 String Quartet (1935/36) is a chromatic dream come true. Needing no introduction, it nonetheless feels introduced here by the Keller touch. Tasteful, selective applications of vibrato allow for smooth textures to arise, especially in the second violin and viola. Furthermore, the musicians back off at the piece’s climax, thus rendering it less insistent, more of a blossoming than a cutting through, and setting up rawness in the cello-heavy afterglow. It’s somewhat regrettable that the rest of the quartet should be so often ignored, and the missed opportunity to correct this tendency here is only somewhat perplexing, for full inclusion might also have undermined the intimate compactness of the disc, which if pushed to a double could lose its hold on the listener (I would argue for the opposite). Either way, Barber’s contrapuntal beauties are vibrant and secure in this unique Ligeti sandwich.

Second violinist Zsófia Környei replaces János Pilz for Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2, which over the course of five movements proves itself to be microscopically bonded beneath a seemingly fragmented surface. Where the mood is slow and sustained, the feeling is of viscous substance from which arise globules that never quite attain autonomy. The mostly pizzicato center forges dawn from dusk, welcoming ephemeral bow contacts in latent purchase. The final Allegro, by contrast, orients itself by a language most akin to cinema. As if in a credit roll, arpeggios and peripheral utterances sweep themselves into recession, leaving only a trail of shadows for us to follow.

Then again, the invitation to follow might itself be an illusion born of the listening process, which can never repeat itself exactly as before. And so, not only can a recording change the times; it can record change itself.