IN a period when musical crossovers are increasingly popular, two string quartets have emerged with recordings that break existing European classical traditions: the Kronos Quartet and the Black Swan Quartet. The Kronos Quartet, a young, adventurous string ensemble from San Francisco (David Harrington and John Sherba on violins, Hank Dutt on viola, and Joan Jeanrenaud on cello) has been together since 1978. It plays exclusively the music of contemporary composers -- John Cage, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and others -- and has never ventured further back in musical history than Bart'ok or Shostakovich.
Its passion for the new led the group, last year, to record an album of the music of Thelonious Monk (``Monk Suite,'' Landmark LLP-1505), which turned out to be an uncanny musical success. Although the members of Kronos do not improvise, Tom Darter's sensitive arrangements made Monk's music sound just right for a string quartet.
Recently the ensemble brought out an album of the music of jazz man Bill Evans (``Kronos Quartet: Music of Bill Evans'' Landmark LLP-1510). Evans was known primarily as one of jazz's most important pianists, but he was also a composer. This album highlights that aspect of Evans's accomplishments. Songs like ``Waltz For Debby,'' ``Very Early,'' ``Time Remembered,'' and ``Peace Piece'' prove very listenable.
On this new release, Kronos is joined by bassist Eddie Gomez and guitarist Jim Hall (both associated with Bill Evans), who add some jazz improvisations.
But the greatest strength of the album lies in Tom Darter's arrangements and the quartet's execution. Darter gives us the songs sounding very much as they were originally written and then adds variations on the themes, sometimes basing them on Evans's own piano improvisations. These are then interpreted by David Harrington, first violinist and musical director of the quartet.
The result: The spirit of Evans's music is successfully captured.
The Black Swan Quartet, led by violinist Ali Akbar, combines the traditions of jazz with contemporary classical music and involves a good deal more improvisation that the Kronos Quartet.
Three of the Black Swan's members have jazz, as well as classical, backgrounds: Akbar, who has worked with Henry Threadgill, David Murray, and Ronald Shannon Jackson; cellist Abdul Wadud, who has played with Arthur Blythe, Anthony Davis, and David Murray; and the well-known bassist Reggie Workman, who had played with John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, and others. Cellist Eileen Folson's background is largely classical, but she improvises with skill and feeling.
In its debut album (``Black Swan Quartet,'' Minor Music 009) the group uses its unconventional instrumentation to execute pieces that are ``classical'' in nature but borrow liberally from jazz. There are blues passages, African and swing rhythms, slurs, slides and bow-grinding, improvised solos, lyrical melodies, counterpoint, and some atonal avant-garde passages.
Most of the pieces are written by members of the quartet, but also included are pieces by trumpeter Lee Morgan and Duke Ellington.
While the interpretations by the Kronos Quartet sound refined and skillful, the Black Swan's are rough and wildly adventurous, often with thrilling results.
Of his extended composition, ``Libation Suite,'' Akbar says, ``The interplay of structure and improvisation, European and African, traditional and contemporary, will hopefully blur some of the lines that separate us.''
The Black Swan Quartet has already blurred some of those lines, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with next.