Turtle Island Quartet Announces Major Personnel Changes
Mads Tolling and Jeremy Kittel leaving group, to be replaced by two European musicians
The two-time Grammy winning chamber-jazz ensemble the Turtle Island Quartet has announced the replacement of two of its members, violist Jeremy Kittel and violinist Mads Tolling. Both Kittel and Tolling are active as soloists and leaders of their own bands.
The newest members—violinist Mateusz Smoczynski and violist Benjamin von Gutzeit—will join cellist and composer Mark Summer and founding member, longtime violinist, and composer David Balakrishnan.
“Mads and Jeremy, both having spent several fruitful years in TIQ, are ready and wanting to move on to pursue their dreams of solo careers, and we couldn’t be happier for them, wish them the very best,” Balakrishnan says. “It’s a big challenge to go through membership change in Turtle Island. The premise of the group requires string players with professional level ability in both jazz and classical music traditions. Such players are still in short supply, even in today’s world with so much more awareness and interest in alternative string styles, 27 years after the formation of the quartet. Those that do possess this extraordinary combination of skills tend to be mavericks, not necessarily well suited to the unique demands of life in a string quartet, where everyone basically plays the same instrument.
Read an interview with Jeremy Kittel discussing his solo work.
"It’s hard to stand out, and why else have the audaciousness to leave the classical tradition, usually in your early teens, and venture into the relatively uncharted waters for string players getting off the page if you don’t have a chance to really strut your stuff, make a name for yourself as an individual?
“Almost impossible to do in the context of being in a string quartet.”
Still, he adds, the Turtles have recruited two players who fit the bill. “Smoczynski has been burning up the surprisingly powerful Polish jazz scene with his fierce evocative jazz stylings,” he notes adding that von Gutzeit is “that rare bird highly prized and sought after by us Turtles, a true jazz violist.”
In a press release, Tolling commented: "My time with Turtle Island Quartet has been invaluable in many ways. I have learned a tremendous amount about how limitless the possibilities are as a string player with the right sense of creativity and willingness to integrate styles. Turtle Island Quartet has been around for over 25 successful years. The reason for this longevity is for starters a great idea, but to sustain this idea, it has been the quartet’s ability to renew itself by engaging amazing players and coming up with concepts and arrangements that go beyond what has thus far been possible in a string quartet. I feel proud of my time in the quartet, and I will take my nine years in the group with me going forward.”
“However, there comes a point, where it is time to move on. I have during the past six years been working with my own quartet. We have released two albums to date, and my exit of Turtle Island Quartet coincides with the release of a brand new album by Mads Tolling Quartet, entitled Celebrating Jean-Luc Ponty—Live at Yoshi’s. My inspiration to do the album comes from my personal connection with Jean-Luc Ponty, since he was the one who recommended me to bassist Stanley Clarke ten years ago."
Smoczynski is a graduate of the Frederic Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland. A student of Andrzej Gebski, he made his jazz debut in 1999 in Jazz Camping Kalatowki with the Jacek Namyslowski Quintet. He took part in the premiere of legendary jazz violinist Zbigniew Seifert’s Jazz Concerto for Violin, Symphony Orchestra, and Rhythm Section. Mateusz leads his own quintet and cites his two biggest music influences as John Coltrane and Zbigniew Seifert. In 2007, Mateusz received the Minister of Culture and National Heritage Scholarship. In 2010, Mateusz co-founded the Atom String Quartet, the first Polish jazz string quartet, which was nominated earlier this year for a Fryderyki Award, the Polish Grammy.
Von Gutzeit was born into a musical family—one of his sisters recently became the principal cellist of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and his father is the director of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. Benjamin began playing the viola at the age of four and was taught by his father until he turned 12. He then studied with Emile Cantor, the viola player of the Orpheus String Quartet. In 1992 and 1994, von Gutzeit won first prize in the final of the German youth competition Jugend Musiziert. At 15, he started to play the electric bass in jazz bands. In 1997, he studied for one year as a student at the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz. In 2001, while attending the Gymnasium in Austria, he began his studies with jazz violinist Andi Schreiber from Vienna, moving to the Netherlands in 2004 to study jazz at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. While living in Holland, he played on the Dutch jazz and improvised-music scene and performed on numerous festivals.
In 2010, he was awarded a full scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he has pursued his master’s degree. Von Gutzeit has performed and recorded with jazz violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Ernst Reijseger, and other jazz string greats.