Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Turtle Island Quartet – Have You Ever Been…?: The Music of Jimi Hendrix and David Balakrishnan – Telarc

Balakrishnan came across Hendrix as an impressionable teenager and learned to reproduce Hendrix riffs on violin.

Published on September 9, 2010

Turtle Island Quartet – Have You Ever Been…?: The Music of Jimi Hendrix and David Balakrishnan – Telarc

Turtle Island Quartet – Have You Ever Been…?: The Music of Jimi Hendrix and David Balakrishnan – Telarc TEL-32094-02, 68:31 [Distr. by Concord Music] ****1/2:

(David Balakrishnan – violin; Mark Summer – cello; Mads Tolling – violin; Jeremy Kittel – viola; Mike Marshall – mandocello (track 13); Stefon Harris – vibes (track 10))

To help celebrate the Turtle Island Quartet’s quarter century anniversary, founder David Balakrishnan returns to one of his earliest inspirations, Jimi Hendrix, on the tribute release, Have You Ever Been…? On previous outings the quartet – which consists of Balakrishnan and Mads Tolling on violin, Mark Summer on cello and newcomer Jeremy Kittel on viola – have explored Dave Brubeck’s, John Coltrane’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s legacy as well as bluegrass, folk, country, pop, world music and many other genres.

Balakrishnan came across Hendrix as an impressionable teenager and learned to reproduce Hendrix riffs on violin, and during a recent trip to the Woodstock Museum once again became enthralled with his boyhood idol, which was the genesis for this project.

As longtime Turtle Island Quartet fans know, the foursome always tackles other people’s work with invention, creativity and imagination: it was no accident they won a 2007 Grammy for their Coltrane homage. With Hendrix as the focal point, they go beyond expectations to formulate a fully integrated reappraisal of the iconic guitarist’s material.

The 68-minute, 13-track album commences with a four-part suite that concentrates on Hendrix’s groundbreaking 1968 release Electric Ladyland. The opening title track melds Hendrix’s rubato style with shades of bluegrass harmony, a trace of country and modern European classicism.  That segues into “House Burning Down,” where the pace is elevated via a staccato pulse enhanced by pentatonic blues scales played on violins that replicate Hendrix’s guitar phrasing. The third part is an elegiac reading of “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” and the suite ends with an inspired delivery of “Voodoo Child” that retains the original determined demeanor without sacrificing the string section’s melodious mannerism.

The second half features two special guests on more Electric Ladyland music. Vibes player Stefon Harris yields an acute lyricism on “Gypsy Eyes.” Harris and the strings coalesce wonderfully in an arrangement that brings to mind what might have occurred had Gil Evans recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Frequent Turtle Island collaborator Mike Marshall uses mandocello – sort of a larger and longer version of a mandolin – to furnish elaborate textures to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

In between the Hendrix cuts is Balakrishnan’s four-movement “Tree of Life,” a shortened adaptation of an hour-long work commissioned last year for a cross-disciplinary, university-level artistic presentation, and commemorates the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of the Species and the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. As the name implies, the multi-tiered opus examines the dialectic between evolution and creation beliefs and utilizes Indian motifs, American folk tradition, symphonic allusions, Afro-Cuban themes, a hint of Cole Porter and enough other musical touchstones that listeners could spend hours identifying each one. Other highlights include a shiver-inducing ballad treatment of “Hey Joe” and Summer’s solo cello translation of “Little Wing.”

The high fidelity on Have You Ever Been…? is remarkable. The Turtle Islanders employed the state-of-the-art technology at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch and the expenditure pays off handsomely: this is music that has both auditory and compositional depth and resonance rarely achieved.

TrackList:
Have You Ever Been…? Electric Ladyland Suite
1. Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)
2. House Burning Down
3. 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)
4. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
5. To Bop or Not to Be

Tree of Life Suite:
6. Ashwattha
7. Lucy
8. Monkey Business
9. Coelacanth
10. Gypsy Eyes
11. Hey Joe
12. Little Wing
13. All Along the Watchtower

– Doug Simpson




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