From the clamorous applause before the downbeat on Thursday evening’s Turtle Island Quartet performance at Sheslow Auditorium in Des Moines, it is clear that Civic Music Association‘s programming has been missed over the summer intermission. The audience was evidently overjoyed to welcome Turtle Island Quartet, back for their fourth performance for the organization, and their collaborator Cyrus Chestnut to the stage. Their “Jelly, Rags, & Monk” project lead the audience on a historical odyssey from the early roots of jazz to such true American originality as found in Thelonious Monk.
When Cyrus Chestnut took to the stage, his fingers soft-shoed across the keys in such a manner that he may have fooled the audience into thinking he was simply trying out a collection of notes rather than reeling them in slowly to his bewitching artistry with his performance of “It Could Happen to You.” Part of the beguiling nature of Chestnut’s playing was the lack of aggression throughout. It wasn’t that he eschewed dissonance, percussive sounds, or angular solos like those inherent in the Monk tunes, but that he made the dissonances graceful and welcome. Chestnut’s skills at the keyboard avoided the temptation of affectation; and yet, he gave each piece the most verve – each expressive turn elicited a smile when his sound emerged from the overall texture.
That graceful sound was mirrored expertly in the playing of each member of the Turtle Island Quartet. By the end of the concert, the quartet’s tempos and stylistic choices were the most vigorous and rousing of the evening. During the take on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Turtle Twist”, David Balakrishnan, who also doubles as the group’s fine “resident composer”, captured that early 1900s sound by transforming his violin into a swinging clarinet sound. Mark Summer‘s percussive techniques on the cello were more resonant and driving while Mateusz Smoczynski (violin) and Benjamin von Gutzeit (viola) explored more provocative sounds in their improvisations. This enhanced expressivity was pleasing, to this taste, because earlier parts of the program had an oddly uniform sense of tempo and coloring despite the diversity of compositions.
Scanning around Thursday’s audience there were heads bobbing and toes tapping in time and appreciation of Cyrus Chestnut and Turtle Island Quartet. Their slick tone quality and earnest ensemble interaction fashioned them into gentle and caring guides through this clever program. It leaves no wonder why they are welcomed back to Des Moines with such ready applause.