by Chris White

Mark Summer grew up in Reseda, California in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. He studied with the Geber family - first with Edwin Geber of the LA Philharmonic, and then with Edwin's wife Gretchen. During high school he played in a Youth Symphony in LA and went to the Congress of Strings two years in a row. After high school he went to Mt. St. Mary's College (near LA) for a year and then transferred to the Cleveland Institute of Music where he received his B.A. in music, studying with Stephen Geber. He then went on to play as a cellist with the Winnipeg Symphony for three years. He has been the cellist of the Turtle Island String Quartet since its inception in 1986. The quartet has made 8 recordings to date.

Real Audio compressed sample of Mark Summer playing his own composition, Julie-o!!!!

Chris White (C.W.): What were some of the early factors that got you into improvising on the cello.

Mark Summer (M.S.): Even before I began studying the cello at the age of 9, I was already playing and writing tunes on the piano and guitar, playing mostly by ear. I was in a rock band in high school and was very impressed by one of my classmates, Randy Kerber. He was composing and arranging pieces for the Jr. and Sr. high school jazz bands. Now he's a very successful LA session pianist. I wanted to improvise and play jazz on the piano, but my technique wasn't up to it. Right after high school I learned a Stephane Grappelli transcription on the cello. Then I heard the Roger Kellaway "Cello Quartet" album [A & M SP 3034 - 1970? probably Out Of Prin t] and I thought "Yeah! This is what I want to be doing on the cello." I tried to get in touch with Roger Kellaway, but didn't have any luck. Finally I did get in touch with Edgar Lustgarten, the cellist on the record, and he told me that unfortunately he wasn't an improviser or a jazz musician [his parts were written out by Kellaway]. When I told Stephen Geber about my interests he said he didn't know anything about jazz. I was discouraged and had no idea where to go, so I figured the Cleveland Institute was a good place to study. It was an interesting move and perhaps not the best for me, but it forced me to work on my technique as a cellist. It was a kind of trial by fire, and I was not very happy there and almost dropped out. I used to bang around on the piano in the practice rooms at the Cleveland Institute and one day the registrar came down and told me to stop. There was absolutely no encouragement to play any kind of alternative music there. But I somehow managed to stick it out for 4 years and do my recitals. I haven't spent much time wondering if I should have stuck around and gotten my Master's degree. Stephen Geber was very good at helping me get an orchestra job in Winnipeg. However, even though I stuck it out for three years, I was very unhappy, for most of the usual reasons. After I quit the Winnipeg Symphony I was kind of a basket case for a couple months - I had no idea what I wanted to do. Then I started playing with guitar player Andy Ross. We performed in a coffee house which turned into a regular once a week gig. The neat thing was, we were doing all different styles - pop tunes, jazz, fiddle tunes, Beatles. I really enjoyed that a lot, and it's something that has carried over to Turtle Island because we do a lot of different styles.

C.W.: How did the idea for Turtle Island come about?

M.S. The idea of having a jazz string quartet came from Darol Anger and David Balakrishnan. They had played together in various kinds of groups. They even had a group called Sahib in which Darol played the cello. He played mostly pizzicato (his cello had a low f string) like a bass. I met Darol at the Winnipeg Folk Festival just after I quit [the symphony], and I thought what he was doing was very close to what I imagined doing and was starting to do. I went up to him and said "Hi, I'm Mark Summer and I've been listening to your records." He kind of mumbled something and then ended up inviting me back to his hotel where I played a little for him. I imagine I played something like that Stephane Grappelli transcription. At a later date, in a moment of clarity I decided to drive down to the Bay area (where Darol lives). It was a long drive from Winnipeg in my Ford Fiesta with no air conditioning. I was feeling more confident because I'd spent the year playing with guitar and drums. I must have made an impression, because when I called him up, he invited me to come over in spite of the fact that he was rehearsing with David Balakrishnan and Matt Glaser (who had come out from Boston). They asked me to play at a concert they were doing for Jazz Violin Celebration which was a record they had made for 3 violins and rhythm section. So the four of us played, and that was the precursor to Turtle Island. They had been thinking of it for a while, and David had actually written some arrangements for that combination (with low 3rd violin instead of viola).

C.W.: What are the challenges of playing jazz and other non-classical music with a string quartet?

M.S.: One of the challenges of it for me is how quickly and completely I must shift gears between my pizzicato and arco playing. The pizz. must sound as much like a bass as possible while the arco playing is more modeled after the sound of a tenor sax. Also, since I must drop my pizz. (or walking bass) parts to play arco, this familiar jazz texture must be replaced by another solution. A lot of it is dealt with through the writing and the arranging. We've developed a lot of rhythmic textures, what we call "chopping," to try to deal with that. That gives the feeling of the sound of drums. The problem is, you can't use those textures over and over again unlike a regular rhythm section that can go on and on without the ear getting tired of the sound. So we take shorter solos. Many times we have the cello play the first solo before the bass parts are introduced - that's been used in a number of tunes. But it is very challenging, and I very rarely get to be supported by a bass line while I'm soloing the way the others do.

C.W.: Do you do much of the arranging for the group?

M.S.: Everybody's arranging, though some of us are more prolific than others. I've enjoyed writing original tunes but I've arranged a few tunes and I finally did an arrangement of "Blue Rondo a la Turque" [by Dave Brubeck].

C.W.: How much of what you play is written out versus improvised?

M.S.: It depends on the chart. For example, in Blue Rondo there are big long sections which are written out, and then there are solo sections which are pretty much improvised after the first voicings. The bass lines are almost always improvised. When one of the violins is soloing, and the other two upper voices are comping (playing chords) it can be really effective to write out voicings for those two to make sure that all the harmonies are being covered, especially if you're trying to get some extended rich harmonies.

C.W.: Do you think there is a growing audience for your music, and that of other improvising string groups?

M.S.: I think there is a growing audience for alternative chamber music, and I think that it will continue to expand. The interesting thing will be to see what happens to traditional chamber music audiences. Will groups such as Turtle Island continue to make inroads, and will the traditional classical repertoire be gradually replaced by more contemporary styles of music, or will there be room for all of it?

C.W.: Maybe the whole "unplugged" movement in rock and pop is helping tune people in to mellower music and will help groups like yours - as opposed to the rock sensibility.

M.S.: As we all grow older and lose our hearing.

C.W.: Maybe it should have happened the other way around - with the quiet music first and the louder stuff when we lose our hearing. Okay, now for the last question. Do you have any musical projects that you would like to work on outside of Turtle Island?

M.S.: I do a lot of playing with a trio with Davis Ramey on guitar and Matt Eckle on flute. We haven't done a recording, it's more gigging and playing together, but it's a really great opportunity for me. I do a lot of arco soloing, and it's so nice to have a great jazz guitarist behind me. One of the things I'm interested in doing more of is playing with other cellists - I like the sound of the cello duo and music for multiple cellos. I got together with Boris Rayskin when he was out here in CA after the NDC Festival. There's something wonderful about more than one cello. I'm finding myself more and more open to that idea. There's another cellist that I've gotten together with out here, Gianna Abodoilo, a former member of the LA Philharmonic, who has traveled to Africa to study drumming.

C.W.: Thanks a lot for all that you're doing for the cello, and keep up the good work.

M.S.: Thank you. I really think what you're doing is important work in terms of helping to show the direction of where the cello and alternative music is headed.

Reprinted by permission of Cello City Ink: Newsletter of the New Directions Cello Association, Vol. 3 No. 2, Fall/Winter 96/97.

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