Turtle Island Quartet – String Quartet Plays Clapton/Hendrix

A number of years ago I was living in New York and happened to catch one of those late-night local broadcast talk shows. I couldn’t even tell you the name of it any more. But I watched it and the musical guests were a group called the Turtle Island String Quartet (since changed to Turtle Island Quartet). I don’t recall if I stayed up to watch them because I was intrigued by the idea of hearing a string quartet or because I just couldn’t sleep.

Regardless, I stuck around to hear them and was I glad I did. This group was not some stuffy old chamber group that wore powdered wigs and bowed to each other before playing like something out of Jane Austen. Au contraire. They rocked!

Rocked,  you say?  A string quartet? (Two violins,  viola,  cello). Yes. I think this is the first song I heard by them. A minuet? Something by Mozart? Well, how about the Cream version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” They play Clapton’s solos note-for-note! If you like that, you can hear ’em do Hendrix’ version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” on YouTube as well. Fucking insane!):

In addition to a name change, the band (still very much active) has gone through a number of personnel changes. I distinctly recall there being a female violinist on the show. But if you go to their web site, the picture above accurately reflects the current membership which is all male.

The quartet also does jazz. A fellow blogger – musicophile – turned me on to an album called The Sidewinder by trumpeter Lee Morgan. It’s a jazz standard and the Quartet makes it very much their own:

As to the band’s name, according to a history on their web site, they “came across a Pulitzer prize winning book by poet/ecologist Gary Snyder called “Turtle Island,” its title taken from native American creation mythology, in which the author pointed out that American culture was really an immigrant culture, coming from all points of the globe.

This fit the group perfectly, since jazz, the most important art form to emanate from America, was at its roots an integration of musical elements brought in from Europe and Africa, later absorbing a healthy influx from Latin America and Asia, making it the first significant world music style.”

So given all that, maybe then you say, “Well do these guys ever play actual string quartet stuff?” Sort of. Here’s a number called “Seven Steps to Bach.” And near as I can tell – and I am hardly a classical expert – there’s some Bach in here along with Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven.”

The quartet has won a couple of Grammy awards. And to my surprise – and delight – they are a 2016 nominee for their song “Confetti Man” from an album of the same name.

The Turtle Island Quartet are touring and I’ll be sure to check them out.

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