John Coltrane Goes Classical
Roughly four decades after John Coltrane's untimely passing at age 40, his musical heritage reverberates to this day. His compositions have been studied, deconstructed, and rearranged by countless performers. Yet in recent years, very little has been done as creatively to rework his tunes as the work of the Turtle Island String Quartet, a band of California-based musicians who adapted a handful of 'Trane's revolutionary works into a classical format, as heard on their latest CD, A Love Supreme — The Legacy of John Coltrane (Telarc). The album just earned a Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover album.
"We've been playing pieces off of the John Coltrane album, the centerpiece being of course the four-movement title piece," founder Mark Summer explains via phone from his Los Angeles home. "[That suite] is considered one of the watermarks of all of John's recordings, and when Dave [Balakrishan, cofounder and violinist] told me that he was going to arrange it, I must say that I was very intrigued."
The first issue to tackle, of course, is the absence of horns and percussion. "What he did was to take Coltrane's improvised solo and used it as a basis for composing around it," Summer continues. "David actually modulated it throughout that first movement, so it's all composed instead of us trying to imitate what those guys did. We took it in a completely different direction. After all, how can you possibly do what Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison did?"
Challenges are nothing new for this group, however, as they've been together (with a few lineup changes) for more than two decades. "It's always a challenge to take something written for saxophone and put it into a string quartet, but that's what we've been doing for 23 years," Summer says. "It also comes from being trained jazz improvisers and having a great buzz on Coltrane's music."
Even though Coltrane is a household name for most music fans in general, let alone jazz fans, what the audience in South Florida will see this weekend is still a unique set, instruments aside. "We always ask how many people have heard the original [Love Supreme], and only a handful of hands come up. It's ironic as we know that we have played the suite many more times than Coltrane himself ever did, because he only played it a couple of times — he recorded in the studio, and there is only one known live recording."
Summer believes that this project makes listeners more aware of how Coltrane influenced generations of musicians and jazz fans alike. "I feel like it gets people who are really unfamiliar with Coltrane to consider how important this music is," he says.
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