String quartet, McKay blend genres

Beyond-classical foursome of musicians to collaborate with multi-talented singer

Contributing writerJanuary 17, 2014 

Turtle Island String Quartet and Nellie McKay, center, will perform together Saturday in Olympia.


If you conjure up an image of a string quartet, you probably aren’t picturing anything like Turtle Island String Quartet, a way-beyond-classical collection of musicians who improvise, compose and cross genres from jazz and swing to hip-hop and world music.

The quartet, performing Saturday in Olympia, has collaborated with the likes of Leo Kottke and the Manhattan Transfer, and this time around, the musicians will share the stage with singer-songwwriter Nellie McKay, known for her sharp, funny original songs and her passion for retro material.

The quartet has won two Grammy Awards for Best Classical Crossover Album, and according to the group’s website, Yo-Yo Ma described Turtle Island as “a unified voice that truly breaks new ground — authentic and passionate — a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today.”

The Olympian asked founding member and cellist Mark Summer about the quartet’s improvisations, collaborations and more.

Q: You started out playing classical music and still do. What was it like moving from the classical world to an ensemble known for its original material, improvisations and collaborations that cross musical genres?

A: Exciting. In spite of the fact that I’m classically trained, I always improvised on piano and drums when I was in a rock band at the age of about 14. But moving between these worlds is an incredible, creative experience because I can combine improv with conservatory training.

Q: How did the collaboration with Nellie McKay come about?

A: Our agent set it up, and David Balakrishnan (violinist and co-founder of the quartet) went to see Nellie perform somewhere in California. There was a power blackout. But Nellie played, entrancing the audience with her whimsical and charming style of performance, basically by candlelight. No embellishments necessary — that’s Nellie’s gift.

Q: How did you come up with the theme of the concert — Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn and the Weimar Republic?

A: The repertoire we chose for this program plays to Nellie’s strengths. She has a gift of capturing the personality of the Weimar cabaret and adopting personas in general. This program allows the quartet and Nellie to be ourselves, playing separately and together. … It’s a unique show, because we weave in and out of genres, playing to each of our strengths — where jazz and pop and cabaret come together.

Q: What do you enjoy about collaborating, in general and with Nellie McKay in particular?

A: I love collaborating because it gives us opportunities to show ourselves in a different light and for different audiences. We learn something every time we collaborate, about our group and how we interact with other musicians.

Nellie is a fantastic collaborator, because she’s a multi-instrumentalist: She plays ukulele, marimba and piano, she sings, etc. It’s fun to move from jazz to pop to cabaret with someone who basically has a trunk of instruments on stage with her.

Q: You’ve collaborated with quite a few artists, including Paquito D’Rivera, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, the Parsons Dance Company and pianists Billy Taylor, Kenny Barron and Ramsey Lewis. Whom would you like to add to the list?

A: We’ve gotten together with Yo-Yo Ma, but it would be great to actually play concerts with him. Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell, the great saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Q: How about if the constraints of time and space were removed?

A: John Lennon, Johannes Brahms, J.S. Bach, John Coltrane.

Q: Is there anything else coming up for the quartet or for you?

A: One of our forthcoming projects is a record we recorded with the great mandolinist Mike Marshall. This includes some of his original songs as well as an original four-movement suite by David Balakrishnan.

We are fine-tuning a program we’ll be touring called “Birth of the Cool,” which focuses on Cool Jazz — Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Paquito D’Rivera and our own David Balakrishnan will all be represented.

Turtle Island String Quartet and Nellie McKay

What: The creative chamber music quartet and the quirky singer-songwriter team up for “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” featuring the music of Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn and the Weimar Republic, plus originals by both the quartet and McKay.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $19-$49 for adults; $17-$44 for students, seniors and military; $9.50-$24.50 for youths

For more information: 360-753-8586 or

Watch: Check out the quartet and McKay at KEVlFLkPqfk

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