Review by Greg Haymes
It was billed as “A Solstice Concert: The Festival of Lights,” and while it wasn’t strictly a holiday concert, it was definitely a celebration of the music of the season – and beyond – sometimes joyous, sometimes solemn, but always jazzy.
Led by violinist David Balakrishnan, the Turtle Island Quartet has never been a typical string quartet – their repertoire includes selections by Charlie Parker and Robert Johnson – and the sublime Tierney Sutton is a rather fearless jazz vocalist, so it was no surprise that their approach to holiday music at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall would be served up with a twist.
Yes, there were some Christmas gems, including a decidedly swinging rendition of “O Tannenbaum,” a somewhat tentative, straight-forward version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” and a marvelously inventive mash-up of “Silent Night” with Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”
They dipped into the Jewish holiday songbag for “Chanukah, O Chanukah,” but they added a spicy Latin flavor to the arrangement. “It’s kind of like how you might celebrate Chanukah in Rio,” explained cellist Mark Summer. And in celebration of the Indian holiday Dwali (and Balakrishnan’s Hindu heritage), the quartet hit their high water mark of the night with the ’60s Bollywood nugget, “Jot se Jot Jagake Chalo,” featuring some soaring soloing from Balakrishnan.
Other selections – John Coltrane’s “Pslam,” the Beatles’ “Within You, Without You” and Balakrishnan’s own “The Voice of the River” – were imbued with a distinctive spiritual quality, even though they weren’t specifically holiday-related.
And several songs by the ensemble – which also included violinist Mateusz Smoczynki and violist Benjamin von Gutzeit – didn’t have any real holiday connection at all, including the show-closing romp through Bud Powell’s “Bouncing With Bud” (featuring some excellent scat singing from Tierney) and a free-wheeling instrumental spin though the Dylan-via-Hendrix “All Along the Watchtower” (unless it was a reference to a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Festival of Light?)
Tierney also grabbed the first-half highlight with a superb set of tunes from Joni Mitchell’s songbag, including a magnificent voice-and-cello duet of “All I Want,” in which Summer somehow played basslines, chords and percussion on his cello all at once. And coincidentally, the same night of the concert, Sutton also snagged a well-deserved Grammy nomination in the Best Jazz Vocal Performance category for After Blue, her tribute to the music of Mitchell.
Excerpt from Geraldine Freedman’s review at The Daily Gazette: “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.”
“A SOLSTICE CONCERT: THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS” SET LIST
Moment’s Notice (John Coltrane)
Psalm from A Love Supreme (John Coltrane) (with Tierney Sutton)
Christmas Time Is Here (Vince Guaraldi) (with Tierney Sutton)
O Tannembaum (with Tierney Sutton)
Blue (Joni Mitchell) (with Tierney Sutton)
All I Want (Joni Mitchell) (with Tierney Sutton)
Little Green (Joni Mitchell) (with Tierney Sutton)
The Voice of the River (with Tierney Sutton)
All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
Chanukah, O Chanukah
Jot Se Jot Jagake Chalo
Silent Night/All Blues (with Tierney Sutton)
Wade in the Water (with Tierney Sutton)
Within You, Without You (the Beatles) (with Tierney Sutton)
Bouncin’ With Bud (Bud Powell) (with Tierney Sutton)
Linus and Lucy (Vince Guaraldi) (with Tierney Sutton)