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Turtle Island Quartet: Have You Ever Been…?

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You can’t say the Turtle Island Quartet lacks ambition. In 68 minutes, Have You Ever Been…? offers both explorations of Jimi Hendrix tunes and an extended, four-movement original by TIQ founder David Balakrishnan. If anything, it’s more ambition than one album can bear. Ostensibly a two-parter, the sequencing divides the eight-track Hendrix portion in half, separating those halves with an incongruous John McLaughlin tune, “To Bop or Not to Be,” and Balakrishnan’s “Tree of Life.” So even before you press play, the disc is overstuffed and confusing.

The front end features the TIQ’s standard lineup-Balakrishnan and Mads Tolling on violins, Jeremy Kittel on viola, Mark Summer on cello-and four songs from Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland LP. The back includes another four, two from Ladyland and one each from Hendrix’s other two studio albums, played with additional personnel including vibraphonist Stefon Harris (“Gypsy Eyes”) and mandocellist Mike Marshall (“All Along the Watchtower”). The starters have sumptuous arrangements, especially “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)?” and “House Burning Down,” but are short on satisfying solos; the enders feature arrangements that are less arresting but, thanks to the guests, kill in the improv department.

“Tree of Life,” celebrating Charles Darwin’s legacy, has great musical depth and some extraordinary passages, mostly in its first (“Ashwattha”) and last (“Coelacanth”) movements. Unfortunately it drags in the middle, with sections that are more cerebral-“evolving” from Eastern European folk to American Songbook standards-than compelling, though the string-quartet sound is always lovely. Factor the Hendrix back in and you have a disc trying to do too much at once.

Originally Published