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The Turtle Island String Quartet conjures Ellington's spiritual works

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On its most recent Telarc CD, The Turtle Island String Quartet does a credible job of covering John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," jazz's holy ground on which others (notably Wynton Marsalis) have stumbled badly. Their Jan. 28 Modlin Center performance continues in a spiritual vein, focusing on the sacred works of Duke Ellington.

It's a leap of faith. Ten days before the concert the arrangements are still being finalized, and they have yet to play with their collaborator, vibraphonist Stefon Harris. It's something the Grammy-winning (and currently Grammy-nominated) group takes in stride.

"That's the exciting thing about collaborations," cellist Mark Summer says, "and by the time we get to Richmond it will be cooking."

Translating the unpredictable, individualistic imperatives of jazz to the formal constraints of a string quartet is a daunting challenge. With four equally matched, sonically similar instruments, chamber quartet arrangements are typically as concise as poetry. Not so with Turtle Island. "Our pieces are like big band charts," Summer says. "The complex parts are completely written out, but other times it's completely improvised … just a soloist playing over my walking bass, with someone else playing rhythmic chops and someone comping [playing chords]." It's the sort of effective approach that can take over a group's sound, he says: "We are careful not to overuse it."

Another way the group varies its sound is by bringing in well-known jazz players (in previous Richmond appearances, pianist Kenny Baron and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera). This time they have a literal ringer, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, an imaginative player whose recordings have blended big ideas (a recent album, "Grand Unification Theory," tapped theoretical physics) with blurringly fast execution.

The program, "The Divine Duke," focuses on Ellington's sacred works: large-scale, mostly late-life compositions that encompass a lifetime of musical development and profound spiritual intent, set in a no-man's land among gospel, jazz and classical. That borderless musical landscape is Turtle Island's home. "The Grammys call it 'Classical Crossover,' but I don't know where we could have crossed over from," Summer says. "I feel like we've always been here." Ellington had a more elegant term for art that defied boundaries: "beyond category."

The Turtle Island String Quartet plays the Modlin Center's Camp Concert Hall Monday, Jan. 28, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-$30. 289-8980.

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