Turtle Island Quartet jazzes up the holidays at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall

Friday, December 6, 2013
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— The snazzy, jazzy Turtle Island Quartet brought vocalist Tierney Sutton to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Friday night as part of its A Solstice Celebration – The Festival of Lights tour.

It was an evening to celebrate all the holiday traditions, from Chanukah and Christmas to India’s Diwali and the winter solstice. Except for a few numbers that had a heavy Indian inflection, everything was in the jazz style. Violinists Mateusz Smoczynski and founding quartet member David Balakrishnan, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit and founding member and cellist Mark Summer showed an exceptional versatility as they transitioned from one style to the next. That shouldn’t be surprising, considering the quartet has won two Grammy Awards and the group’s core has been together more than 25 years.

With the addition of Sutton, who proved to be an agile singer with great ears, it was a comfortable collaboration. Sutton uses her voice like an instrument, often relying on a pure tone without vibrato. She sat behind the upper strings, next to the cellist, and although they were all amplified, the balance was good. Only occasionally was it difficult to discern her lyrics, but when she scatted or just crooned, there never was a problem.

The quartet began the evening with John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” in which everyone took a turn improvising. Sutton then joined them for the final movement of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” in which her voice sounded like a chant. It was a haunting reading, especially with Summer repeating the hypnotic four-note rhythmic motif at the end.

They also did “Christmas Time” and “Christmas Tree” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which were unforced, very laid back and mellow. Two Joni Mitchell tunes, “Blue” and “Little Green,” were pensive, even within the jazz context.

Sutton and Summer also did a marvelous improvisation around “Take a Chance.” Summer’s bass lines, plucking and rhythmic tapping of his cello were inspired; no wonder he’s called the Bobby McFerrin of the cello.

Also performed was Balakrishnan’s “Voice of the River,” a hard-edged, jazz-rock rendition of a Jimi Hendrix take on a Bob Dylan tune, and “Chanukah O Chanukah” in swaying Latin rhythms with improvisations over modal scales.

“To Light the Lamps,” a 1960s Bollywood tune in Indian rhythms, was followed by a jazzy “Silent Night” that had more than a hint of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” bass lines.

“Wading in the Water” was a strong jazzy blues tune, while George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” was Indian. The evening ended with a boppy arrangement of Bud Powell’s “Bouncing with Bud.”

The small crowd clapped enthusiastically and got as an encore “Linus and Lucy,” the well-known theme song to the Peanuts animated television specials.

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