Groove, Swing, Fiddle

Leo Kottke and the Turtle Island Quartet join forces to commemorate the winter solstice

Back in the day when Bill Graham was revolutionizing the art of concert promotion with his shows at the Fillmore East and West, it was commonplace for a bill to feature more than one headliner. The idea of one artist opening for another, thus reinforcing the notion of a rock 'n' roll caste system, was not a part of his scene.

Multiple headliners can lead to some interesting double bills. Unique pairings that come to mind include Loggins and Messina with Fleetwood Mac; Ten Years After and Buddy Rich; and the Grateful Dead with (of all people) the Beach Boys. Sometimes, these gigs can lead to exciting and novel musical cross-pollination.

Next week, Tucsonans will get to experience one of the more novel double bills of the new millennium when iconic and virtuoso guitarist Leo Kottke teams up with the brilliant and imaginative Turtle Island Quartet.

It's hard to imagine Kottke--who practically reinvented the art of solo six- and 12-string guitar, and someone who has perfected the one-man show--fitting in with Turtle Island, a chamber orchestra that interprets classical music through jazz--or is it jazz through classical? Either way, it seems a bit odd, yet also oddly appealing. Both artists are unique unto themselves, and perhaps therein lies their creative common bond. Truth be known, among his many stylistic triumphs, Kottke can lay claim to an interpretation of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." So we know he has some classical chops.

To their credit, the Turtle Island Quartet, armed with two violins, cello and viola, has been turning the classical world on its proverbial ear for more than 20 years. Using the chamber-orchestra approach, it has explored much diverse musical terrain, experimenting with everything from bluegrass and funk to bebop, swing and beyond. The quartet's adventurous spirit is most recently evidenced through its expanded and exhilarating interpretation of jazz legend John Coltrane's seminal work, A Love Supreme.

Like Kottke, Turtle Island's best work combines sophisticated and precise arrangements with a flair for the (literally) uncharted waters of improvisation. Although not common to contemporary chamber music, this was very much in vogue back in the 1800s, when chamber music, as a brand-new art form, was the rock 'n' roll music of its time.

In a recent interview on NPR, Turtle Island violinist David Balakrishnan commented on how chamber music, jazz and Turtle Island have evolved: "A string quartet is about working with everything written out note for note ... codified and played and recorded the same way over and over a million times. Jazz musicians are about something else. They are about equal dedication and equal involvement in the moment, but on a different level and with different parameters. What we're trying to do is find some kind of balance between both those traditions."

Over the years, Turtle Island has collaborated with other musicians, symphonic ensembles mostly, and it will be a treat to see how they meld with Kottke, who has made a living out of cultivating his one-man-band approach with an array of odd and open tunings to accompany his various nontraditional approaches to finger-picking acoustic guitars.

As for Turtle Island, teaming up with Kottke is a bit of a dream come true.

"We were looking for a way to augment our winter solstice program," said Balakrishnan, in a recent interview from the road, "and Leo's name just naturally came up."

"Naturally" seems a bit of a stretch, but not so when you consider that it was not too long ago when Kottke got to see Turtle Island perform an expanded arrangement of his song "Oddball." According to Balakrishnan, their cellist Mark Summer "has been completely influenced by Leo over the years. And so I just called him out of the blue."

As for how well Kottke will fit in with Turtle Island's approach to their holiday themed winter solstice program, Balakrishnan expressed no worries. "Leo is an American icon. His playing and singing evokes a feeling that touches people's hearts. That's what this program is about."

The format for this show will feature a best-of-all-worlds approach. According to Balakrishnan, Kottke will come out first, and "Leo will do what he does." Mid-set, Turtle Island will come out to join him, and they will interpret, or reinterpret, a part of Kottke's repertoire, including a piece from the late John Fahey, Kottke's mentor and benefactor. Kottke's "Too Fast" and "Summer's Growing Old" are also among some of the tunes on which they will collaborate.

After an intermission, Turtle Island will present their solstice program. This will include many nontraditional approaches to the familiar, while also delving into other ethnic holiday traditions including Scottish reels and jigs, a piece from the Indian Bollywood tradition and, among other things, Summer's Latin arrangement of "Chanukah, O Chanukah." In the midst of all this, they will be joined by Kottke.

Over the years, Kottke has played Tucson on numerous occasions, and it will be fascinating to see how his considerable solo talents translate into an ensemble approach. "Fortunately," joked Balakrishnan, "we have material we've been able to con Leo into playing.

"We're not a string quartet that you'd expect," reminded Balakrishnan. "We groove; we swing; we fiddle ... we do a lot of things."

By the time this tour bus reaches Tucson, they will have nine of these shows behind them, so expect these players to be warmed up, loose and ready to go. In a season where music is dominated by so many all-too-familiar holiday themes, this show will be a very welcome breath of fresh winter air.

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