Songs For Strings Lovers

There’s some tendency to marvel at the novelty of certain instruments in genres outside of their origins, or common sighting; look, there’s an accordion in that jazz band! (Although I will admit that Matthew Welch is still a surprise, and his music is fine). But these instruments tend to be ones that have been used for popular music genres for a long, long time, and it’s the era of recorded, electric music that is the exception in musical history.

Take the violin for example. On recorded media, it’s usually heard in the context of classical music, but it’s a versatile instrument that has been used to play popular songs and dance music for several hundred years. That includes in America, and that includes the blues, heard on this exceptional and important collection of early African-American violin blues, a gem in any collection.

That also includes jazz, where you can find the violin from the very start. This tradition has been synthesized and transported over the last decade or so into contemporary art music by the Kronos Quartet, predominantly, and in associated ways via the two groups I’m writing about, the Turtle Island Quartet and the Quartet San Francisco. Both are excellent and both have been at the forefront of playing more popular music in the string quartet format without making it sound like dumbed-down, commercial ‘pops’ music.

The Quartet San Francisco makes pitch-perfect music, playing arrangements that land in that sweet spot between jazz, pop, theater music, light classical, tango and country. Their sound and musicianship are excellent, but what’s most enjoyable about them, and they are consistently a joy to hear, is that their expressive attitude is completely no-nonsense, without special pleading or pretense. They clearly, sincerely enjoy their material. Their 2009 release QSF Plays Brubeck is marvelous from beginning to end, the type of disc that you could spin endlessly because it simply sounds so good and is so fine and dandy. The material is great, of course, a smart selection of Brubeck’s best, including “Take Five” but going well beyond.

Brubeck has written a lot of great tunes, many of which have nothing to do with odd meters. The Quartet sounds great in the famous track and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – sounding better here than anywhere, with it’s roots in Mozart – and they have the good nature and good humor to play “It’s A Raggy Waltz” with a feel that is old-timey and also old-European. Where this great disc shines brightest, and where it’s truly stopped-dead-in-the-tracks breathtaking are the beautiful mid-tempo tunes “Strange Meadowlark” and “The Duke,” masterpieces of composition and played with meltingly exquisite natural touch. The melodies sound so good on the strings, where the phrases fit the motion of bowing like a bespoke suit. Brubeck’s best music has a mellifluous quality that is rare in jazz, where the history of the music has emphasized intervals and vertical relationships, and the flow of these arrangements glitters like a river sparking in the setting sun. QSF Plays Brubeck is fabulous and a demonstration that music does not have to have the most profound intentions or a heavy hand to be profoundly affecting.

The latest Turtle Island CD shares this musical attitude and applies it to very different music, that of Jimi Hendrix and first violinist David Balakrishnan. The latter contributed a four part piece titled “Tree of Life,” and the former is represented by arrangements of eight songs as well as the CD’s title, Have You Ever Been . . .? Unlike the commodified crap of classical groups playing Sting and Metallica, this recording is the real thing, and it’s just as terrific as the Brubeck set. Like that, the musicianship is extremely high, and that’s not just a matter of technical mastery but of taste. Neither disc tries to recreate anything about the original material except for the content of the songs themselves. So the Turtles don’t try to sound like or play like a rock band, they sound like a group of string players completely at home in the blues, and that’s the foundation of Hendrix’s art. Of course, Hendrix could wail, but that vocalized quality comes so easily and naturally to the violin that when Balakrishnan is wailing it sounds completely right. There’s open space for excellent, idiomatic improvising for all the musicians. The opening suite burns through the title cut, “House Burning Down,” a quietly intense “1983 . . . A Merman I Should Turn To Be” and “Voodoo Child.” From the opening note, the music and playing grab you and don’t let go.

I think this approach is superior to the Kronos’ arrangement of “Purple Haze.” It’s a matter of accepting what a string quartet does best, and then playing music, and the Turtles excel. Even what feels like a misstep, the slightly ponderous intro to “Gypsy Eyes,” with Stefon Harris on vibes, turns completely involving and charming within a few phrases. By the time Mike Marshall adds his mandocello to the concluding “All Along The Watchtower,” you might be singing and you will probably be dancing. Balakrishnan’s piece is a welcome and substantial contrast, somewhat in the style of Terry Riley but also with very effective stretches of song-style melody and accompaniment. It’s full of rhythmic strength, lilting melodies and rich ensemble passages. It’s played with great sympathy and verve, as is everything on this CD.

These styles are rounded out by a new release from the QSF leader, Jeremy Cohen, leading his group Violinjazz in The Music Of Eddie South. South was one of the leading violinists in popular styles starting in the early part of the recording era. The music brings us back to a time when musicians valued range as much as depth, and the idea of specialization hadn’t even been considered. Cohen takes us on a tour of South’s art, which includes blues, Western Swing, gypsy music, hot jazz and classical melodies played with a popular, vocalized style. It’s far more than a demonstration though, because Cohen and the band are top-notch and the playing is simply great, and great fun. The music is extroverted and showy in a charming, unselfconscious way, from the bravura opening of the signature “Black Gypsy,” through a wonderfully sincere reading of the often lugubrious “Deep Purple,” a sober “Kol Nidre” and a sweet, swinging “I Can’t Get Started.” Except for the brilliant digital recording, it’s easy to picture yourself in a speakeasy, listening to a hot band while you drink and dance the night away. This is a valuable recording for reminding us of how pop music really used to be, and beyond that it’s simply wonderful music-making. Really, get these all and enjoy.