David Balakrishnan jazzes things up with a violin

February 21, 2018 GMT

Charlie Parker was Beethoven come back. Just as the famed composer bridged the way into Romanticism, the celebrated jazz saxophonist advanced the music of the 20th century, says violinist David Balakrishnan.

As one of the foremost inventors of bebop, Parker, who was nicknamed “Yardbird” or simply “Bird” early in his career, laid the groundwork for what would become modern jazz.

“He took the jazz language of his time, which was really big band, and made it into art music by really creating a level of artistry and virtuosity, not just as a player but in the vocabulary,” said Balakrishnan, founder of the Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet.

Wednesday, Balakrishnan and the rest of his troupe - fellow violinist Alex Hargreaves, cellist Malcolm Parson and violist Benjamin Von Gutzeit - return to Houston with a program paying homage to Parker’s legendary influence. Dubbed “Bird’s Eye View,” it shares its name with the quartet’s latest album.

The performance at the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH) will feature original jazz arrangements, alongside thematic pieces from the bebop era, including a few Parker classics like “Ko Ko,” “A Night in Tunisia” and “Dewey Square.” One highlight of the program will be “Aeroelasticity: Harmonies of Impermanence” by Balakrishnan, a newly commissioned work inspired by his desire to live in the mid-19th century as a jazz virtuoso.

“I’m trying to develop the language of the string quartet through my own lens,” Balakrishnan said.

Since 1985, his small ensemble has redefined the limits of the traditional string quartet, which originated in the Classical period, broadening its repertoire by blending a variety of contemporary musical styles - such as folk, bluegrass, funk and hip-hop, to name a few - with a classical aesthetic. The troupe’s sound also contains hints of cultural music, particularly from India, his father’s homeland.

Balakrishnan began studying violin at the age of 9 for the same reason many young students start training in any extracurricular activity - his mother. In middle school, however, he discovered that the violin, as uncool as he thought it was, had the capability to play rock ‘n’ roll songs. Being a devoted Jimi Hendrix fan, this revelation incited a growing fondness for his instrument.

His unique approach caught on, as did the jazz arrangements he created in his 20s. “The audience responded to that because it was really the first time you heard a string quartet authentically find a way to play jazz where it sounded like jazz and not like classical players,” he said. “That was the game changer.”

Now, at 63, Balakrishnan is the only founding member of Turtle Island Quartet remaining. “I think of myself as the senior turtle,” he said, laughing. Based in the San Francisco Bay area, he travels to New York every two months or so to rehearse with his fellow musicians, two of whom are in their 20s and one in his 30s.

The upcoming tour brings their multidimensional sound full circle, Balakrishnan said, as if reflecting Charlie Parker’s innovative spirit into the string quartet and consequently heightening the singular experience.

“The saxophone is such an iconic instrument in the jazz world,” he said. “The violin isn’t, but it’s not that it’s not capable of living there, so to me, what’s important is, yes, the language of what we’re doing, but also in a bigger picture, just the instrument itself and the tradition it comes from.”