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Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' Live, With Strings

A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane and his powerful quartet, remains a towering and seemingly untouchable jazz classic. But the virtuosic genre-benders in the Turtle Island Quartet have done it justice, re-working the seminal album for strings and winning a Grammy for their trouble. They recently performed a live version, captured live for JazzSet, at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City.

Before A Love Supreme, the Islanders warm up on wicked arrangements of music from '70s fusion bands: Chick Corea and Shakti. Then, violinist and arranger David Balakrishnan explains his approach to A Love Supreme and each of the movements: "Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance" and "Psalm." The first is a transcription of the entire Coltrane saxophone solo, in which Balakrishnan hears melodic material that reminds him of Sibelius and Shostakovich, and orchestrates it for the four strings.

In the second and third movements, Balakrishnan returns to "our jazz thing," with improvisation over a rhythm section. The fourth movement, "Psalm," is a prayer to God. Legend has it that Coltrane brought a Psalm to the studio and set it on a music stand, then played the prayer note for note. Uniting the composition, Balakrishnan uses the "mantra, a heartbeat" — the four-note figure "A Love Su-preme" that underscores the original.

Balikrishnan and cellist Mark Summer founded the Turtle Island Quartet almost 25 years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mads Tolling and violist Jeremy Kittel are the newest members. Tolling also plays in bassist Stanley Clarke's group, and introduces Clarke's song for Coltrane to close the show.

Although a string quartet is a classical configuration, jazz works for the Turtle Island Quartet — and there's a bonus.

"Often, folks won't realize that even though we're staring into these sheets of music, a lot of [what we play] is improvised," Balakrishnan says. "That's not expected from string players, and that's been a great source of income for us."

This segment originally ran May 7, 2009.

Credits: Thanks to concert division director Greg Evans at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Center in New York, and Kim Smith Public Relations. Edward Haber is our recording engineer with Wayne Schulmeister; sound remix by JazzSet technical director Duke Markos.

Copyright 2009 WBGO

Becca Pulliam, JazzSet