Freedom and Discipline: Turtle Island Quartet, Have You Ever Been…?

By Daniel Garrett

Turtle Island Quartet, Have You Ever Been…?
The Music of Jimi Hendrix
and the Music of David Balakrishnan
Produced by Thomas C. Moore
Telarc/Concord, 2010

The Turtle Island Quartet’s Have You Ever Been…? What is to be done with all this free-spirited beauty? It is like a great landscape—awe and exultation seem the only responses. It is a generous, impressive, easily satisfying collection, including as it does exceptional talent exploring the compositions by the rock music guitarist Jimi Hendrix, and guitarist John McLaughlin, and one of the quartet’s members, violinist David Balakrishnan. Jimi Hendrix has been admired for his mastery of the guitar and his innovations, and celebrated for the energy and power of his work, including by David Balakrishnan, who saw Hendrix perform live in 1969 and 1970. Hendrix is just one of his influences, among which are European classical music, Indian music, and jazz. The quartet, which in the past played the music of John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, consists of Balakrishnan with Mark Summer, a cellist, and Mads Tolling, a violinist, and Jeremy Kittel, a violist; and the four-part Hendrix suite the quartet plays, “Have You Ever Been…?,” initially brings to mind classical and folk music, rather than rock, and then a sensual sweet groove emerges (I suppose that is what Andy Summers calls a “dreamy rubato style” in the liner notes), followed by contrasting—chattering, sawing (staccato)—rhythms and high-pitched wailing. It becomes moodily somber; and again very seductive, more seductive than I ever found the work of Jimi Hendrix. I had liked Hendrix in my twenties, but have not listened to him much since then; and I had thought his music looked back to Bach and Beethoven as much as to Chuck Berry, and forward to experimental and industrial music, but despite its formidable structure and poetic imagery, my listening to Hendrix’s music was more often than not a self-conscious effort and I did not think of it as beautiful. I did think it might be a form of liberation. In the interpretation of the Turtle Island Quartet, I hear something fine and sensuous. Just as the native rhythms that might have sounded one way when played on an African landscape with African instruments sounded differently when played on European instruments on American soil as part of the improvisations on composed music that is jazz, the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s songs are different with classical instrumentation and technique.

John McLaughlin’s “To Bop or Not to Be” is full of drama and energy, and soars. McLaughlin, a Hendrix collaborator and participant in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, is one more connecting link.

David Balakrishnan’s four-part “Tree of Life” is inspired by the world’s creation, as conceived by both science and mythology, and it commences with a slow melody over a drone and a short wail-whine familiar in Indian music before the music lifts and speeds, before it saws, chops, falls, and rises again, becoming briefly simple, and then seeming to go other places. The second part of it is deeply melodious, even meditative, and then sharp rhythms emerge (listening to it is akin to hearing voices); and the third part seems intriguingly contemporary and soulful; and the last has much energy and rhythm. One can hear the musical cultures of the world in “Tree of Life,” so that the present is vivid in the look back: it is a truly harmonizing thought.

The Turtle Island Quartet collection closes with four songs, two by Hendrix and two associated with him. “Gypsy Eyes” comes nearest to the thick tone of Hendrix’s guitar, and has a brusque beat, though there is something Asian in it too; and the vibes of Stefon Harris are given a lot of space, and produce a fine tension and tactility. Balakrishnan thinks it is sexy but I hear something folksy in “Hey Joe,” but the weirdly entrancing “Little Wing” has a slashing rhythm, moody bass, odd melody, and I thought of Mahler while listening to it. There is a gypsy quickness and melancholy, with Mike Marshall on mandocello, in “All Along the Watchtower.”

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House and ABC No Rio, is a writer whose work has appeared in print and online, in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory, Illuminations, Option, Pop Matters, Rain Taxi, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett edited poetry for the male feminist Changing Men magazine, wrote about the African-American artists Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, reported on environmental issues and organized the first interdepartmental meeting on environmental justice for National Audubon (The Audubon Activist), reviewed books for World Literature Today, and essayed international film for Offscreen. Daniel Garrett has been working on a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which features stories of friendship and love, ignorance and knowledge, and art and mundane work, in the lives of a woman artist and her associates.