By January 25, 2014 2 Comments Read More →

Fiddle me this: violinists in jazz (part 3), and a playlist.

goodman-smith-carter(left to right) Jerry Goodman, Stuff Smith, Regina Carter

(continued from part 2) Jean-Luc Ponty, like Stephane Grappelli before him, was something of a teen prodigy among French violinists. As early as 1960, Ponty was wowing his countrymen with his biting, complex, hard bop lines, and by the late 1960’s, he had garnered international attention. As fusion began to tempt away many of jazz’s established players around 1970, Ponty followed and soon became rock star famous, if increasingly less critically-heralded.

First backing up stars like Frank Zappa, Elton John and John McLaughlin, Ponty eventually became something of a fixture on the prog-rock and pop-fusion scene, starting with his 1977 album, Enigmatic Ocean. His work with McLaughlin was a natural fit, as the leader’s Mahavishnu Orchestra had prominently featured the violin of Jerry Goodman. Goodman, with fusion chops that rivaled the pyrotechnics of Ponty, was also a prominent member of Shadowfax and the tasty, but too-little-known, Dixie Dregs.

While neither Ponty’s most profitable work, or any of Goodman’s, really qualifies as jazz, it’s often quite compelling and creative, and is some of the best non-concert fiddling heard in the last 40 years or so, “new grass” and other forms notwithstanding. Only a handful of other violinists have dabbled in either jazz or fusion since these two came on the scene. Regina Carter, out of Detroit, while never really grasping the rhythmic nuances of the best jazz players, stands out by bringing a free form sensibility, classical chops and an understanding of the blues often lacking in the fiddling of her contemporaries.

Should you want to explore any of the violinists we’ve discussed in this three-part entry, we’ve put together a hear-and-play set list for you. By clicking on the song links, you can hear a sample, and buy the individual tunes at Amazon.com.

Joe Venuti, our pioneer in Part One, partnered with another pioneer, guitarist Eddie Lang, on a series of duets and ensemble recordings in the mid-1920’s. From 1927, here they are on Wild Cat. Four years later, Venuti and Lang were joined by still another pioneer for a recording session featuring a who’s who of the best young, white jazz players on Beale Street Blues. Jack Teagarden—the man who transformed the jazz trombone from its gutbucket, counterpoint origins into a fluent, swinging solo voice—is heard here on vocals as well as instrumentally. Also present is a 20 year-old Benny Goodman on clarinet, already past his Jimmy Noone-influenced roots and playing in a mature, fiery, modern style.

Stephane Grappelli, who actively recorded for over sixty years, is probably best known for the Hot Club of France records made with Django Reinhardt. Here’s what we believe is the 1937 version of a tune they recorded several times, Limehouse Blues. A tune we mentioned in Part One, Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor, a.k.a. the “Double Violin Concerto” was tackled by Django’s quintet and featured Grappelli along with guest violinist Eddie South tackling this most famous of fugues in the freest way possible, circa 1938. South, as we mentioned earlier, sticks close to the master’s original intent, while Grappelli gives everyone a lesson in both jazz rhythm and improvisation. Bach himself might have approved.

Stuff Smith, the next violinist in our chronology, came to prominence doing novelty numbers like 1936’s I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music. His approach is more focused on this next recording from about thirty years later, recorded with the same band as was featured in the video we showed in Part One, the Kenny Drew Trio. Here they are, doing Caravan.

Stephane Grappelli is heard again, many years later, with Jean-Luc Ponty on this 1973 recording of Willow Weep For Me. Still in his jazz uniform, Ponty shows off his chops on an early recording, where the 22 year-old tackles the bebop anthem A Night In Tunisia. Ponty’s fusion chops can be heard to their best advantage on Enigmatic Ocean, a 1977 collaboration with the technically brilliant guitarist Alan Holdsworth, and the album that catapulted Ponty to something like pop star status, however briefly.

Jerry Goodman’s violin is heard to good advantage on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s groundbreaking 1972 Birds of Fire. Here Goodman, guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Billy Cobham and pianist Jan Hammer were in the midst of showing how Miles Davis‘ fusion experiments could be adapted to a purely electric, almost heavy-metal context, without losing their creativity and immediacy.

Although this predates Goodman’s association with them, the Dixie Dregs achieved great critical acclaim with Night Of The Living Dregs, from their 1979 album of the same name. Even before Goodman joined them, violin was a featured instrument, first with Alan Sloan, and later with Mark O’Connor, who went on to prominence playing a genre-crossing variety of styles, from bluegrass to new age. Finally, we feature Regina Carter in a duet with pianist Kenny Barron on Softly As In a Morning Sunrise.

2 Comments on "Fiddle me this: violinists in jazz (part 3), and a playlist."

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  1. Lloyd Hess says:

    I might be wrong about this, but I think you’ve overlooked Pa pa John Creech. I think he preformed on quite a few different R&R recordings in the 70’s the one band that comes to mind is The Jefferson Airplane amongst others, maybe you could look into that?

  2. jridetroit says:

    Lloyd, we didn’t exactly overlook Papa John Creach (not “Creech”, as it’s often spelled). We simply couldn’t include every guy who ever played fiddle on a record in the last 90 years. Creach was a pretty marginal player, talent-wise and influence-wise, but he is probably the only violinist of the psychedelic era whose name the public can actually remember. He did indeed play occasionally with Jefferson Airplane, and more frequently in their offshoot band, Hot Tuna, but we weren’t trying to make an exhaustive list of violinists. Incidentally, even in the rock & roll of that era there were plenty of better players on wax. Sugarcane Harris on several Zappa albums, and East of Eden’s Dave Arbus—especially in his famous solo on the Who’s “Baba O’Riley”—come to mind. There were also many fiddlers of varying abilities who popped up as session players on various records. And then there’s the ubiquitous violin solo on Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” played by Robby Steinhardt, who may be the only fiddle player in a mainstream rock act of the AOR era. None of these guys, with the possible exception of Harris, are anything like premier musicians. So they, along with Creach, remained unnamed in the original post. Just as did the hundreds of better players working in bluegrass, and for the reasons we indicated therein. Check out the playlist we’ve included at the end of the article, Lloyd. Many of these players—Stuff Smith comes to mind immediately—are barely remembered these days, which is a shame and a travesty. This isn’t meant to be an indictment of players like Creach, but simply a gentle reminder that shinier jewels can be had by digging a little deeper.

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