LIVE: Turtle Island Quartet @ The Egg, 4/11/10

Turtle Island is a special place.

In modern myth, it’s considered a Native American name for North America. In musical myth, it’s the name of a pioneering group of musicians who freely fire-dance across genres in search of new sounds and new joy.

On Sunday night, the Turtle Island Quartet came to The Egg in Albany, joined for the evening by mandolinist and old friend, Mike Marshall. Together, the five men made all kinds of music, borrowing here from John Coltrane, there from Eric Clapton, and, to complete the circle, from Stanley Clarke – with a tune dedicated to Coltrane.

In between, Marshall and founding members, cellist Mark Summers and violinist David Balakrishnan, led their own compositions – each as impressive as the next.

Marshall hunched over his mandolin, nearly obscuring the tiny instrument with his huge hands. But those big mitts are full of grace, and the notes just seem to cascade from the box. In the hypnotic Montreaux chestnut “Egypt,” for example, Marshall unleashed a solo that was unabashed, gripping and playful all at once. But it was pure music; not flash.

He traded up to a mandocello for a duet with Summer on the latter’s “Julie-O.” The tune – dedicated to Summer’s sister, and a popular piece in the contemporary canon – drew cheers, and both performers smiled throughout its delivery, signaling the bliss they were enjoying during its creation, just as the crowd signaled its own at its reception.

Marshall also performed a duet with Jeremy Kittel. In the quartet, Kittel occupies the viola chair, but he jumped over to fiddle to play Marshall’s “Little Bears,” a cat-and-mouse game with melody.

Other brights moments included “House Camp,” the giddy mandocello romp “Gator Strut” and Igberto Gismonti’s “Loro.”

The second set was highlighted by Balakrishnan’s three movement “Interplay,” which, as the composer noted, leaned a little closer to standard string quartet fare, yet was still flecked with adventure.

The quartet is a fierce beast, especially when driven by Summer’s magnificently propulsive cello – which he pizzes as often as he bows. That talent came in especially handy when assaying Coltrane’s Django-like opener, “Moment’s Notice” (offered before Marshall took the stage), and during Clarke’s “Song To John,” which closed the program before a riffing muscle and mandocello encore of Cream’s take on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.”

Violinist Mads Tolling – a frequent collaborator of Clarke’s – introduced “Song to John” and also gave it some of his finest playing of the night.

It was an intimate crowd at The Egg, to say the least, but that made the music, and the setting, even more special – a little Turtle Island of its own.

Review by Bokonon

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