A few years ago, a reviewer described cellist Mark Summer as “a whirlwind with his instrument, playing things that were seemingly impossible until one saw him actually doing it.”
At the time of the review, Summer was a member of the Turtle Island String Quartet (TISQ), the celebrated genre-busting ensemble he founded 31 years ago with violinists David Balakrishnan and Darol Anger. Last September, Summer left the group to explore new musical opportunities. He will perform this Sunday at Silo’s.
On the phone from his home in Novato last week, Summer talked about his decision, after three decades, to change course. “It was getting difficult to be touring so much,” he said. “I was leaving home all the time. I love my life with my wife Bibi, and some of it was just having done the same thing for so long. I wanted the opportunity to do a wider variety of things on the cello.”
Still, Summer was clear that the influence of TISQ is indelible. “It was something that was such a big part of my life,” he said, “and something that I try to carry with me into my other projects, which is just using the cello in different ways -- using it as a percussion instrument, using it as an instrument to play bass lines, and then of course using the cello the way it was originally meant to be played, as a beautiful melodic instrument.”
Summer is classically trained. As a young man, after four years at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he joined a symphony orchestra and quickly realized that he would not stay on that path. “I got a job in the Winnipeg Symphony,” he said, “and was in the orchestra for three years, and miserable.
“I love classical music and symphonic music. It’s great, but it’s not the center of my soul.
I had always had this love of pop music and jazz and was a big Beatles fan, and was in rock bands playing guitar and then drums and then piano. That was what drove me.”
While still with the symphony in Winnipeg, Summer put together a group called the West End String Band. “We used to play once a week at a club called the Blue Note, taking its inspiration from the famous New York jazz club,” he said. “That’s how I started doing all these different styles on the cello. We played Beatles tunes. We played original tunes. We played Paul Simon. I didn’t even know that some of our tunes came from David Grisman. A year after I started improvising on the cello, we were playing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.”
Summer’s professional fate was tied to meeting violinist Darol Anger in Winnipeg, and through Anger he met Balakrishnan. The three of them found a fourth, the scene shifted to San Francisco, and TISQ was born in 1985.
Fast forward 31 years and Summer brings his talent and his love of jazz to new projects and to Napa this Sunday with pianist Ken Cook in an expansive performance he calls Celloland. “It’s a territory,” he said, “that allows me to go from playing Bach to playing Brazilian choro tunes and jazz standards and original music. I’m going to be playing some of the solo cello pieces that I wrote. I’m known for especially “Julie-O” which is a solo cello piece I wrote in 1987 that cellists all over the world are playing.”
“Celloland is an umbrella term,” Summer added. “It means we can go anywhere with this instrument, any style. It’s not to say let’s play this style just because it can be played, but it’s music that I love and music that I’ve grown up with.”
Sunday, May 15, 4 p.m. $20-$25. Silo’s. 530 Main St., Napa. 707-251-5833. SilosNapa.com.
Grass Child Gypsy returns to Napa
If you’re in touch with Napa’s vibrant music scene, you’re familiar with Grass Child, a band that since 2009 has had a high-profile presence at local festivals and at our principal venues. The precursor to that band, Grass Child Gypsy, was solidified in 1996 and is back together again for a series of reunion shows. Influenced by the Virgin Island roots of lead singer and guitarist Kurt Briggs Schindler, and powered by the instrumental prowess of lead guitarist Brant Roscoe, bassist Jonny Tindall and drummer Barry Forsythe, their musical territory is expansivefrom rock to blues to reggae to world beat. They will perform May 20 and 21 at Silo’s and May 27 at BottleRock.