“A QSF Journey” – Quartet San Francisco – Reference Recordings RR-143, 56:33 ****:

The word “crossover” is often crossed with bad connotations; the worst of both worlds, some say. Since the term was coined by the record companies in the 1980s, the meaning has changed dramatically, engulfing many different styles and artists. Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream was one of the first way back in the late 50s, attempting to integrate the jazz world into mainstream classical, and many jazz musicians, like Dave Brubeck and Ornette Coleman, did the same from their end. Since the advent of multiculturalism, we have seen many more examples, some achieving great popularity on multiple-genre record charts (the true definition of “crossover according to many record companies), and like any type of music, there are wonderful examples and others that are truly hideous. Some early opera singers forayed into the pop world with miserable results, though artists like Renee Fleming, who spent much time in other worlds while younger, are very successful. The Kronos Quartet was certainly emblematic of successful artistry in the things they did, and now we have the Quartet San Francisco presenting this album, one that is much “lighter” than the Kronos activities for the most part, and they have been at it, unabashedly “crossover”, for 20 years now.

Portrait Quartet San Francisco

Quartet San Francisco

Not everyone responds to this, often because of earlier bad experiences, and perhaps the term itself should be jettisoned in favor of something else, or even nothing else, though that would probably leave publicity people in somewhat of a quandary. And I am not sure that QSF’s characterization as what they are doing as the “chamber music of the 21st century” is helpful either, but these are semantics. The real question is, is this stuff on this recording any good?

The answer is a resounding “yes”. This is not Beethoven or Bartok, so don’t expect that. It is entertainment, though at a very high level, and the music itself is ingratiating and relaxing, the latter in the sense of pleasurable, not sleep-inducing. We get a wide variety of compositions and arrangements, from Gershwin to Chinese folk songs, from Mongolian folk songs to African folk songs, from American spirituals to Argentinian tangos. It’s all great fun, beautifully done, and with far more depth than simple surface-level forays into each individual genre—there is real artistry here, not only in the playing (each member of the quartet is a first-class artist with wide experience in many types of music) but in the music itself, pieces with great integrity and sophistication.

Whether the energetic Fiesta!, the luscious rhythmic jauntiness of Tango Eight, or the delicious vibrancy of the African folk song Jambo—to name just a few—this is indeed a journey worth taking for almost anyone who appreciates an exciting and worthy hour of engrossing music. Make sure you are one of them! Great sound silvered at Skywalker Sound in California.

Tracklist:
Tango Eight (Cohen)
Fiesta! (Lipsky)
Tango Carnevale (Cohen)
Francini (Cohen)
Rhapsody in Bluegrass (Gershwin­Rouse, arr. Cohen)
La Heroína (Cohen)
How Sweet the Sound (Cohen)
Federico II (Sollima)
Al Colón (Cohen)
Jasmine Flower/Beautiful Scenery of Wuxi (Traditional Chinese folk songs, arr. Cohen)
Toroi Bandi (Mongolian folk song, arr. Cohen)
Jambo (Traditional African folk song, arr. Cohen)

—Steven Ritter

Link to more info and track samples at Reference Recordings.