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Among contemporary crossover string quartets, Kronos and Turtle Island stand out as the most accomplished, commercially successful, eclectic, well-connected, and adventurous touring groups. Both are committed to proving that string quartet repertoire is anything but antique, that ensembles are capable of far more sonic variety than we hear on recordings of Beethoven and Haydn, and that the aggregation can meaningfully engage all musical idioms. Notwithstanding these heroic exploits over the last 30+ years, I must confess that I'd rather hear a piano trio, a violin sonata, or chamber music where the blending of strings is spiked with the intrusions of wind or brass instruments. The dominance of string quartets in chamber music repertoire is as inexplicable to me as landscape-oriented computer monitors. So when I heard that Turtle Island Quartet was rolling into Halton Theater, opening Charlotte Concerts' 2015-16 season with the wondrous Cyrus Chestnut along for the ride, it was music to these jazz-loving ears. More than one of chamber music's greatest cathedrals is a piano quintet, and Chestnut's pedigree includes stints at the keyboard of combos headed by Wynton Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, and Betty Carter – jazz giants all. The program, entitled "Jelly, Rags, and Monk," promised to deliver intriguing collaborations and excavations.
There was more variety to the program than its title embraced, including compositions by Debussy, Bob Mintzer, Jimmy Van Heusen, Bud Powell, Chestnut, and Turtle Island founder David Balakrishnan. Showing laudable deference to their guest, the Islanders preceded him onstage – Balakrishnan and Mateusz Smoczynski carrying violins, Benjamin von Gutzeit toting a viola, and Mark Summer schlepping a cello – playing a couple of tunes from their vast songbook in rather tame arrangements. The presumption seemed to be that the sound of string quartets lay in their audience's comfort zone, so Turtle Island would deftly navigate a voyage beyond. From a classical standpoint, the arrangements for Bob Mintzer's "Windspan" and Balakrishnan's "Rebirth of the Holy Fool" (an homage to Miles Davis's landmark Birth of the Cool recording) lay in familiar waters, with occasional episodes of improvisation from each of the players making waves. From a jazz perspective, these were tighter arrangements than either Birth of the Cool or those played by the hard-bop combos piloted by Horace Silver, who set the gold standard for balancing the foundations of written scores with the flights of improvisation they should inspire. Summer and Smoczynski impressed me most with their first licks, Summer because jazz improvisation is such a rare commodity on cello and Smoczynski because his sound put me in mind of jazz fusion master Jean-Luc Ponty.
I wasn't immediately encouraged when Chestnut made his entrance and explained the title of the program. It was to be a selection of tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and – for knowledgeable folk, the only part of the title needing explanation – Scott Joplin. "Jelly, Joplin, and Monk" would have been more euphonious, but it would have bred disappointment from Janis Joplin fans expecting to hear "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Ball and Chain." Even with Chestnut aboard, we still weren't weighing anchor with the two pieces that followed – Morton's "Jungle Blues" and Debussy's "Golliwog's Cakewalk." Morton's "Blues" was encouraging for demonstrating von Gutzeit's ability to swing with his viola, and Balakrishnan tossed in some funky flavor that established his mettle, but Chestnut was content to lurk in the background, and our visit to Debussy's Children's Corner was pure transcription without improvisatory exploration.
Then, to paraphrase the most beloved eccentric in jazz, in walked Monk. The glow that came to Chestnut's eyes as he narrated how he first encountered Monk's music was very much the same glow that illuminates Marsalis' face whenever he speaks of the great bebop guru. You really don't have to go into the many-splendored weirdness of the man, beginning with his habitual trancelike dancing around the stage whenever he performed in concert; you just need to hear the music. Everything became looser after Chestnut called the first tune, "Little Rootie Tootie." After Summer began the soloing, von Gutzeit played his viola solo over spirited percussion from Smoczynski – chucked on the body of his violin. When Chestnut began to solo, we were decisively adrift in a sea of jazz, reveling in the wrong notes that always seem so jubilantly right in Monk's world. Von Gutzeit embraced the weirdness with a pithy solo, closing the piece over Chestnut's accompaniment.
The Turtle Islanders smuggled some classical cargo onboard for the voyage so that the next two pieces, Monk's "Ruby, My Dear" and Powell's "Bouncin' With Bud," bore a kinship with the Third Stream Music of the late 1950s that sought to fuse jazz and classical music. Both arrangements began with traditional string quartet intros, the one for "Bouncin' With Bud" so elegantly antiquated that I had to laugh. While Chestnut didn't change the tempo when his turn to solo came on "Ruby," he gave that impression by playing sixteenth notes – and a sprinkling of trills – instead of the quarters and eighths we were hearing from von Gutzeit and the two violinists. When Smoczynski took his second solo, he was even looser than he'd been in "Rootie Tootie," laying down his bow and plucking his violin as if it were a guitar, his quartet cohorts playing pizzicato accompaniment. Taking us to intermission, "Bouncin' With Bud" probably swung the hardest of any tune at this concert. Yet the piece abruptly changed after each of the jazz solos with composed quartet interludes that served as launchpads for the next solo. In fact, the arrangement was more like those on the Birth of the Cool album than the tune Balakrishnan dedicated to it.
There was still one more configuration to see after the break – and one more promised composer. Chestnut came out by himself to solo on Van Heusen's "It Can Happen to You," but so much of the piece was spent noodling, half seriously and half comically, on "Yankee Doodle" that it could be justifiably labeled a medley. The only real doldrums in the second half occurred when the quintet finally came around to Joplin with "Pineapple Rag." On his second soloing attempt, Chestnut managed to swing lightly, but the string players couldn't manage to do much with the quaint theme in this humdrum arrangement.
On the other hand, our second sampling of Morton in "Turtle Twist" was more pleasurable than the first, Balakrishnan presenting the melody with a bluesy zest and von Gutzeit taking the first solo over Summer's cello percussion before Chestnut doused the tune with rollicking beer hall spasms. From there, we unexpectedly turned to a pizzicato solo from Summer that looked and sounded like those you hear from a jazz bassist. Monk's "Bye-Ya" was a delightful case of role reversal. Beginning with von Gutzeit's weird harmonics on the viola, it was the Turtle Islanders who sounded more like the jazz artists and experimenters, for when they fell silent, Chestnut's solo was more like the cadenzas we expect in classical concertos. I had no objections to sticking with Monk's music for the final selection, "Rhythm-a-ning." The loose arrangement, providing ample opportunity for all the band members to improvise, was typical of arrangements that conclude jazz concerts or nightclub sets, including a spirited exchange of four-bar salvos that gave everyone a last chance to shine at the end of the performance. Even musicians who haven't improvised all evening long – say the drummer or the bassist – traditionally get a moment in the spotlight, often as the leader calls out their names. So it was quite appropriate to see Balakrishnan unveil one last tool in the ensemble's toolkit when the group was trading fours, playing a mini percussion solo on the body of his violin.