A journey into uncharted atonal territory

By John Shakespeare Dyson | October 7, 2023

On September 29 I attended a concert at the Zorlu Center – one of the 33rd Akbank Jazz Festival  events – given by the American trumpet-player Terence Blanchard, the ‘E-Collective’ (his backing group) and a string quartet by the name of the ‘Turtle Island Quartet’.

I must congratulate the man at the Zorlu Center ticket office on his tolerance when faced with a clueless fuddy-duddy. As I do not possess a smartphone, it was not possible for him to send the ticket to me electronically; so he telephoned the man at the door of the concert hall to tell him to admit me. Fortunately, too, I had remembered to wear warm clothing. Last October, when I attended a concert by Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymee Nuviola at this venue, I spent the first half hour shivering – until the torrid Cuban rhythms warmed my bones. This year the auditorium was, as it had been on the previous occasion, stone cold.

Terence Blanchard’s long and distinguished musical career began in 1982, when he joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra (a big band that lasted from 1940 until the 1990s but was at the peak of its popularity in the 1940s and 1950s). He then transferred to The Jazz Messengers, a collective that began in the early 1950s and ended with the death of Art Blakey, its founder, in 1990. Mr Blanchard has written over 40 film scores, has performed in even more than that number, and has won five Grammy Awards. His most recent album (Absence, released in 2021) was dedicated to the saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, who passed away in March this year. During the 2021-2022 season his opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the first opera by an African-American composer staged there.

In addition Mr Blanchard has served in an educational role – as artistic director of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz (formerly the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz), as artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami, as visiting scholar in jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music, and as holder of the Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. A quote from him: 'I’ve always said that if I wasn’t a musician, I’d like to be a teacher.’

When he and his fellow-musicians arrived on stage, my initial reaction was that both the performers and their instruments were an odd mixture. There were four black guys (a drummer, a bass guitarist, a pianist and Mr Blanchard himself), four fairly straight-looking white guys brandishing stringed instruments, and a white guy with a deadpan expression who was holding a guitar. The drummer, seated at the back of the stage, was sep‘rated from the bass guitarist and the piano by a transparent plastic screen. I still have no idea what the purpose of this screen was, but on occasions during the concert Mr Blanchard sauntered off-stage between it and the bass guitarist, and disappeared for a few minutes. The string quartet, meanwhile, sat at the front on the left, with the piano and two synthesizers behind them. Never before had I seen this combination and disposition of instruments, and I wondered what sound they would produce when they got going.

Absence, the first number they played, was from Mr Blanchard’s eponymous 2021 album. Here is a recording; I will present it to your attention without comment so you can form your own judgement with regard to the style.

The second item, whose name I did not catch, began with a solo by the invariably energetic and smiling-faced drummer, and continued with a display of Mr Blanchard’s impressive skills as a trumpeter. In between the instrumental solos there were episodes by the string quartet, and I found the result most interesting. To illustrate the way in which the juxtaposition of passages played by a string quartet with others played by traditional jazz instruments might work, here are two recordings. In the first, the Turtle Island Quartet play the introduction to Envisioned Reflections; following this (in the second recording), other instruments take over. 


It was only in I Dare You – the third piece, which began with a phrase very much like the opening theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – that I started to enjoy the music. Yes, I cannot delay the admission any longer: until this point I had found the sound made by Mr Blanchard’s outfit (with the honourable exception of the string quartet) displeasing to the ear. The reason was that their take on atonality – a kind of music that does not use traditional scales, and thus does not contain any recognisable harmonies – did not hit any of those buttons in my consciousness that are labelled ‘aesthetic quality’. This is not to say that I have anything against atonal music per se (I am a fan of such modern composers as Webern and Ligeti): I just did not like this particular group’s interpretation of it.

It is possible to combine various instruments, all playing atonally and independently, in such a way as to create an overall effect that is pleasing. This particular combination of independent atonal islands, however, did not coalesce into an archipelago. One of the chief drawbacks of any atonal music is that unless it succeeds in capturing an aesthetic – as the music of Aydın Esen (for instance) undoubtedly does – it all too easily becomes meaningless. To illustrate what I mean, take a brief listen to the ending of The Elders. The decline into anarchy, initiated by the guitar, starts at around the 3:40 mark.

Some would describe this kind of music as ‘experimental’ or ‘forward-looking’. To my mind, it is just painful – it has an uncompromising harshness that sets my nerves on edge.

Lecture over. Suffice it to say that it took me until the third item to reconcile myself to the group’s style. Things brightened up considerably, however, in the wistful fourth piece, Dark Horse. Here Mr Blanchard played a few passages on the synthesizer that were really quite lyrical. It was nice to see that he is capable of such lapses into direct emotional appeal. 

Throughout most of the concert, the Turtle Island Quartet just added an underpinning to whatever chords were being laid down by the piano and bass guitar, only occasionally coming to the fore. When their turn came to play something on their own, however, the quality of their contribution was at last understood: they proved to be a technically accomplished group with a distinctive sound. During this piece, a medley of short episodes in contrasting rhythms, the second violinist (the group’s leader) gave a demonstration of a technique that involved bouncing the bow off the strings with unusual force. The technical term for this technique is actually spiccato, but this was spiccato on steroids. As things progressed the cellist, who has an Arabic-sounding name, gave us a skilfully-played ‘oriental’ passage. Then, following a pizzicato interlude (that is, one in which the strings were plucked rather than bowed), the quartet swung into a frenetically rhythmic – indeed, explosive – finale.

The nearest thing to what I heard at the Zorlu Center is this piece, entitled The Second Wave. At 0:39, 1:23 and 3:33 you will hear some of that spiced-up spiccato; it certainly gives the music some rhythmic edge.


The last two items in the concert demonstrated Terence Blanchard’s ability to find unusual and appealing instrumental textures. The first of the two, for instance, showed how a guitar solo can be accompanied by a string quartet in such a way as to create a successful combination. The last item, meanwhile, featured some appetising chords from the piano, and there were various duets that showed an impressive mastery of register. I was particularly pleased by the way a trumpet entry came sliding in – almost imperceptibly – over a guitar riff. In fact, things seemed to become less atonal and more harmonious (to my ear, at least) as time went on. By the end Mr Blanchard and his musicians seemed to have mellowed and were playing with less spikiness and more warmth. Indeed, during a final burst of pyrotechnics the guitarist (who up to then had unwaveringly maintained his poker-faced decorum) actually cracked a half-smile.

Whether or not the gradual increase in my enjoyment of this concert was due to my becoming better and better adapted to the musicians’ aesthetic, or whether they actually started playing differently, I cannot tell. But by the end I had become convinced that I was hearing something not just technically excellent, but also enticingly original.

I will leave you with a recording of a performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2015. At 33:02, Mr Blanchard introduces a short piece dedicated to Jimi Hendrix in which the guitarist – the same one we heard at the Zorlu Center – plays some satisfyingly laid-back solos. Would it be unrealistic to wish that Terence Blanchard had stayed within this mellifluous groove and not launched out into uncharted atonal territory? But musicians, like everything and everyone else, must move on.

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