ALBUM REVIEW: Turtle Island Quartet’s Confetti Man

by Maggie Molloy

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According to Native American folklore, Sky Woman fell down to the Earth long ago, back when it was entirely covered by water. Realizing that she could not survive in the water, the surrounding sea creatures dug up dirt from the bottom of the ocean in order to create land for her. They placed this dirt on the shell of a giant turtle—and eventually this turtle grew into Turtle Island, the land known today as North America.

This tale is a powerful symbol not only for creation, spirituality, and environmental awareness, but also for coexistence and community. It is a story which celebrates and synthesizes both old and new cultural traditions—a broader theme which the Turtle Island Quartet strives to explore through their music.

The Turtle Island Quartet is a Grammy Award-winning ensemble whose innovative and eclectic sound infuses a classical string quartet aesthetic with contemporary musical influences such as jazz, folk, funk, be-bop, bluegrass, Latin American groove, and Indian classical.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the quartet is comprised of violinists David Balakrishnan and Mateusz Smoczynski, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, and cellist Mark Summer. Since the group’s inception in 1985, they have cultivated a vast and wide-ranging repertoire consisting primarily of original compositions and arrangements by quartet members.

And after 30 years as an ensemble, the group certainly has cause for celebration: they recently released their 15th studio album, “Confetti Man.” The 10-track disc is a collection of original compositions, arrangements, and commissioned works.

The two-movement title track, written by Balakrishnan, integrates elements of classical with jazz, bluegrass, folk, and even a touch of Indian musical influences. The dynamic mixture of musical styles from across history (and across the world!) is meant to reflect the computer age, where everything is fast-paced and at our fingertips. Inspired by his wife’s painting depicted on the album cover, the piece explores a wide range of vibrant melodic material, as if traveling through a musical museum of different cultures and time periods, often blurring the line between musical traditions past and present, near and far.

The title track is followed up with “Windspan,” written for the quartet by the famous saxophonist Bob Mintzer of the Yellowjackets. As one might expect, the piece harnesses a bold, big band sound featuring some seriously saxophone-like string solos brimming with slides, glides, and bona fide jazz grooves.

Another jazzy showpiece is “La Jicotea,” which was written for the quartet by renowned clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera—a musician who is celebrated as much for his artistry in Latin jazz as for his achievements in the classical music realm. The piece combines both of these strengths, mixing Latin American grooves in unusual meters with a carefully-crafted polyphonic soundscape featuring imaginative musical textures and timbres.

The sweetest and most charming song on the album, though, is certainly Turtle Island’s rendition of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic “Send Me No Flowers,” featuring the inimitable Nellie McKay on vocals and ukulele. McKay’s sugary sweet, ’60s-tinged vocals float effortlessly above a darling and delicate string accompaniment.

Another piece with plenty of personality is Balakrishnan’s “Alex in A Major,” which was inspired by his next-door neighbor’s son. The charming and youthful main theme illustrates the boy’s playful and sassy nature, and the piece features both Balakrishnan and Smoczynski as dueling bluegrass fiddlers.

In all, Turtle Island’s “Confetti Man” is a charming and charismatic fusion of imaginatively diverse musical styles, a beautiful reminder that musical traditions old and new can still exist in perfect harmony.

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Jake Schepps Quintet: “Entwined”

by Rachele Hales

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When I saw Jake Schepps’ latest album sitting in the review pile I chuckled a little remembering an old joke told to me by a friend after I chose the music of Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs as accompaniment on our long road trip:

Friend: Can you read music?

Banjo Player: Not enough to hurt my playing.

Schepps didn’t start playing the banjo until he was 21, which is ancient considering most classical virtuosos are practically born playing their instrument.  Why the banjo?  In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Schepps says, “There are a lot of guitar players out there, but the banjo is different.”

Entwined is not his first ambitious banjo project, but he’s done something unique here by commissioning classically-trained composers to write music meant for a traditional bluegrass string band (banjo, guitar, violin, mandolin, and bass).  The result is progressive, mature, and fun to listen to.  “Everybody wrote pieces to their personalities,” says Schepps, “and I think that this variety really makes a big statement about how much potential there is with the string band for playing new music.”

Like what you hear? Buy it here!

The disc opens with Flatiron, a set of eight pieces composed by Marc Mellits that start with exuberance and capriciousness before relaxing into poise and serenity.  He takes us out of the series with “Dreadnought,” a lively piece that will make you want to grab a pair of spoons and play along on your knee.

Matt McBane is up next with Drawn, a beautiful five-movement composition in which gentle strumming gets stretched almost to minimalism.  Drawn takes typical bluegrass style out of its stiff denim jeans and lets the bareness of it spin and sway across an expansive wilderness.

Matt Flinner, a banjo prodigy and acclaimed mandolin player, returns us to the spirit of bluegrass in Migrations.  He’s ramped up classic Appalachian folk elements and created pieces more balladic than anything else on Entwined.

Gyan Riley concludes the album with something distinct.  Stumble Smooth, which Schepps calls “the burliest piece of music I’ve ever worked on in my life,” draws influence from bluegrass for sure, but also from modernism and free jazz.  The slow buildup highlights the percussive capabilities of the banjo before the piece evolves into what sounds like a fun, frenzied jam session.

Entwined is an adventurous project that champions the versatility of the bluegrass ensemble.  Schepps and his collaborators have given us a loosened-up bluegrass collection that even modern classical lovers will enjoy.  The only question I have is… have you hugged your banjo today?

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: DePue Brothers Band “When It’s Christmas Time”

by Maggie Molloy

Nothing says Christmas quite like family—and this week’s album celebrates both.

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The DePue Brothers Band puts a bluegrass twist on classic Christmas carols in their holiday album, “When It’s Christmas Time.” In addition to performing their own arrangements of Christmas classics like “Sleigh Ride,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland,” the album also features two original Christmas tunes.

The DePue Brothers—Wallace, Alex, Jason, and Zach—grew up in a musical family, where they played violin together from a young age. Each of them has since grown into virtuosic violinists, but they still frequently perform together, especially around the holidays. The band also features their honorary brothers, guitarist Mark Cosgrove, banjoist Mike Munford, bassist Kevin MacConnell, and drummer and vocalist Don Liuzzi.

“All four brothers, when they’re together and when the music is happening—it’s symphonic in power,” Liuzzi said.

The group’s music combines elements of bluegrass, classical, and rock to create their own unique genre-bending sound they call “grassical.” Their music combines their classical music training with a down-to-earth, grassroots music aesthetic.

Their Christmas album is no exception. The brothers bring humor, charm, and a whole lot of bluegrass to all of your favorite Christmas classics.

“This particular album definitely reflects a lot of different styles and combines it well,” Jason DePue said. “And yet this album does manage to have a decent amount of flow from song to song…you still get the sense that stylistically the band remains cohesive and intact.”

The album is off to a giddy start with Jason DePue’s instrumental arrangement of “Sleigh Ride.” The brothers put a twangy twist on the original tune, spicing up the otherwise smooth string texture with bluegrass banjo riffs and cheerful, jingling bells.

The band switches gears for their performance of the 18th century French Christmas carol “Pat a Pan.” Liuzzi described his arrangement of the piece for four violins, banjo, guitar, and a variety of African and Middle Eastern drums as “Renaissance meets the Middle East.”

Next, the band’s jazz-influenced rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” comes to life with Liuzzi’s gleaming vocals complimented by a lush string texture and a series of solos from several of the bandmates.

The tune is followed by “Medley of Carols,” an instrumental rendition of five festive classics. With its heavily ornamented melodies and improvised elements, it almost makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a Christmas jam session at the DePue Brothers’ home.

Speaking of holiday traditions, the album also includes a song the brothers have performed for over 30 years: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Wallace DePue plays solo violin on this simple, sweet, and sentimental version of Bach’s famous classic.

Another family tradition comes to life in the group’s performance of the title track, “When It’s Christmas Time.” The piece is Alex DePue’s arrangement of an original Christmas carol written by the brothers’ father, Wallace DePue Sr., who has written one Christmas carol each year for the last 40 years. The tune’s perfectly harmonized vocals and grooving beat are brimming with holiday nostalgia.

“There’s a real vocal tradition inside the DePue Brothers family,” Liuzzi noted. “And actually, you can hear it in their violin playing; they sing when they play.”

Later on, the band picks up the pace for “The Fat Man,” Alex DePue’s rock ‘n’ roll original which makes a musical nod to “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

They shift gears again for Alex DePue’s instrumental arrangement of “Winter Wonderland,” where Zach DePue’s solo fiddle elegantly sparkles with holiday magic. This is not your typical Christmas cover song, though—the brothers give this classic a rowdy bluegrass ending.

Next, their sentimental cover of “O Holy Night” captures the warmth and sincerity of the Christmas spirit, with Jason DePue’s solo violin melodies soaring over a soft and sweet string texture featuring harp, cello, and even horn.

“I dedicated [‘O Holy Night’] to my mother,” Liuzzi said. “She sang it every Christmas, and my mother had a voice that was heavenly. It was really beautiful—extraordinary intonation, extraordinary tone, and heartfelt. I wrote that arrangement with her in mind.”

In fact, Liuzzi’s mother passing away was a major impetus in the band’s decision to create a holiday album.

“After Don’s mother passed away, it was a good project to work on,” Jason DePue said. “During the holidays everybody has got so many different types of emotions, and I always say the best medicine for anything anytime of the year is keeping busy and keeping constructive.”

The album comes to an end with Jason DePue’s arrangement of Schubert’s timeless “Ave Maria.” The brothers’ glistening violin melodies sparkle above delicate piano arpeggios, ending the album on a gorgeous, poignant note.

“This is the only song on the CD that involves no more and no less than the DePue Brothers,” Jason DePue noted. “We thought we would close the CD with just the four of us playing this song together.”

“When It’s Christmas Time” celebrates Christmas music from across the ages and infuses it with a grooving bluegrass aesthetic. So this season when you’re yearning for some new holiday tunes, spice up your average carols with the DePue Brothers’ grassical twist on Christmas classics.

“This album defines the DePue Brothers Band and grassical, which is so many different styles coming into one expression, one musical statement,” Liuzzi said, noting that Christmas is both a joyful and thoughtful time of year. “It’s both festive and also contemplative—and boy, you get the extreme ends of that in this album.”