The concept of a “supergroup” in music is nothing new and crosses all musical genres. In jazz there were such pairings as Miles Davis with John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie with Charlie Parker and a host of others. In the late 60s, already rock legends Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood joined forces for the short-lived appropriately named group Blind Faith. The world of classical chamber music is filled with the elite of every instrument coming together for tours and recordings. Sometimes it is a blatant moneymaking venture, but most often it is because musicians, at even the highest level, love getting together with great players and putting themselves in new artistic situations. Duke University was the very fortunate host of a brief pairing of two of the most highly acclaimed and unique musical ensembles: The Turtle Island String Quartet (TISQ) and the Assad Guitar Duo.
When I first heard about this concert, I was somewhat disappointed, primarily because these groups are such tremendous musical forces by themselves that I thought their style and impact would be diluted in a joint concert. Not on your life! This was an evening exploding with energy, awe-inspiring technique and a relaxed and informal atmosphere unlike most other “classical” concerts. Right up front, much credit should be given to the pristine, balanced sound – no easy task when you are setting up four string instruments and two classical guitars. Every note was clear, every instrument distinctly heard, all without any feeling of a heavy, electronic aural assault.
The TISQ is no stranger to the Triangle area having played here many times since their formation in 1985, most recently in 2003 at UNC-Chapel Hill. For those of you unfamiliar with this group, they look like a traditional string quartet, play the same instruments, and they don’t use any digital devices to alter their sound production. But once they begin to play, you immediately know this is a different species altogether. The group consists of co-founders David Balakrishnan, violin and Mark Summer, cello, along with Evan Price, violin (became a turtle in 1997) and violist Mads Tolling (turtle shell obtained in 2003). These turtles (not the ones who recorded “Happy Together”) all have a classically trained background, but they are also accomplished jazz players with improvising skills on par with any recognized jazz master. Price is also especially proficient as a fiddler having won numerous international prizes in this category.
The brothers Sergio and Odair Assad descended from a Lebanese/Italian family but grew up in Brazil and much of their playing and original compositions are infused with the rich musical heritage of that magical country. Like the hundreds of sports clichés one had to endure during the recent Super Bowl, when describing the Assad duo’s performance one is reduced to superlatives and oft-repeated phrases that cannot really begin to describe the impact of these guitarists. In short they represent a level of playing and musicianship that all guitarists aspire to.
The usual mass hysteria that almost always is the local reaction to objects falling from the sky that is not in 100% liquid form had a definite effect on the pitifully sparse attendance. That’s OK – less chance for talkers and those training for the Slowest Candy Unwrapping Olympics. The TISQ came out first and played a set of three jazz standards that had everyone tapping their feet and swinging to the sounds that you would not think could emanate from a string quartet. One of the great effects from the group is cellist Summer’s remarkable ability to turn his instrument into a percussion instrument and to also sound like a bass using a wide array of pizzicato techniques. The Assads were then introduced and sat down in the center between each pair of quartet players. After playing "No Mystery" by Chick Corea, the remainder of the set featured an Assad family member as either composer or arranger. Astor Piazzolla’s Verano Porteno was arranged for the group by Sergio Assad and beautifully portrayed the erotic tango rhythms of Argentina. They continued their tour around the world with a work based on Balkan folk music, arranged by Sergio’s daughter Clarice.
The second half began with the Assads' solo set. I always enjoy speaking with musicians who had never heard these performers afterwards. They are uniformly in awe. This set was no different. They began with another Piazzolla piece followed by an original Sergio composition that was based on their Middle Eastern roots. The evening closed with the turtles and guitars all together again in a variety of compositions ranging from Indian ragas by violinist Balakrishnan to a work by guitarist Ralph Towner depicting a mythical country formed when the Pacific Northwest states secede from the U.S.A.
I hope and suspect that a recording project is in the works for this collaboration. If you are in the path of this tour, then go! It will make you happy.