Jazz from unusual places

Tierney Sutton and Turtle Island Quartet draw from diverse inspirations

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

It will be a Charlie Brown Christmas when the Turtle Island Quartet and jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton take the stage at Macky Auditorium at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 15.


It will also be Hanukkah, the Hindu celebration of Diwali, and a winter solstice celebration that includes music from Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis.

“It’s not going to be a Christmas show like people are used to,” says Turtle Island’s cellist Mark Summer. “It’s going to be something different.”

Turtle Island itself is something different. Started in 1985 with the standard string quartet setting, the group has specialized in playing jazz as improvising musicians. As Summer explains it, “One of the things that sets Turtle Island apart is that we are improvisers. There aren’t a lot of groups that can play over [chord] changes like we can.”

Or as Colorado’s own Aspen Times wrote, “These guys play real jazz. They improvise solos. They swing. They employ jazz inflections. And they play the same instruments Haydn used in the 18th century.”

And they do more than jazz. From the beginning, the group has called on the east Indian-American heritage of their founder and first violinist David Balakrishnan, a practicing Hindu and the group’s principal arranger.

“Turtle Island has always been about being a self-contained unit that can imitate all the sounds of a jazz ensemble,” Summer says, “but also to play music that David Balakrishnan has written, that combines Indian music, classical music and bluegrass and jazz and rock ’n’ roll.”

This eclecticism and the mastery of multiple elements has earned Turtle Island a unique place among touring musicians and recording artists. The group’s solstice program, which it has performed for several years now, grew out of the members’ built-in diversity: In addition to Balakrishnan and Summers, “a Jew from the San Fernando Valley” as he puts it, the quartet also includes a Pole and German.

“The broad idea was to present music associated with each of our backgrounds,” Summer says. “We chose to call it ‘A Festival of Lights’ because there is a Hindu celebration of Diwali, called the Festival of Lights, and of course, Hanukkah, which I celebrate, is also called the Festival of Lights. And then we threw in some Christmas tunes [and] some of the Charlie Brown Christmas music.”

Adding Sutton, who follows the Baha’i faith, only increased the diversity. She had been touring with the quartet in a program called “Poets and Prayers” that included music by Joni Mitchell, and part of that program will end up on the concert as well — along with, possibly, some Hendrix and Miles Davis.

“It’s going to be a mixture of seasonal things and not-seasonal things,” Sutton explains.

But Sutton doesn’t see a big difference between the “seasonal things” and any other music. For her, all music has a spiritual dimension.

“I consider the making of music to be a fairly perfect metaphor for true spirituality,” she says. “What all spiritual paths create is a sense of harmony and oneness.

The Baha’i writings say that God has made music as a ladder by which the soul ascends to heaven. And I think that’s true. I think people intuitively listen to music because it centers them, they sense it as a metaphor for something bigger. They feel it as a meditation, whether they are making it or listening.”

Like Turtle Island, Sutton is also “something different.” She often sings classics from the great American songbook, but in an utterly individual, unique way. Her singing combines pitch-perfect intonation and stunning agility into a virtuoso style.

“When I’m singing a song that’s been recorded many, many times by the greatest vocalists in history, I don’t want my version to be compared to theirs,” she says.

“I want it to be enough of a departure that it takes the listener away completely from that other version.”

What do you get when you put together such distinctive artists as Tierney and the Turtle Islanders?

“I don’t think the words string quartet and vocalist really describe so much what you’re going to hear,” Sutton says, “and that’s kind of cool.”

“It’s like coming to a jazz club sometimes, and sometimes it’s like being in Carnegie Hall,” Sutton says. “It’s great theater to watch our quartet do our thing, and adding Tierney to the mix makes it that much more interesting.”