Musings on the Evolution of Jazz Violin Part Four: Bop to Hop
by Anthony Barnett
What do you think of the effect of pickups on jazz violin’s acceptance and whether it is a positive, negative or neutral trend?
Any opinions on the
1. current crop of pickups?
2. acoustic vs. solid body instruments?
3. appearance of 5 string models?
I am not a practicing violinist myself so I am unable to answer from a musician’s point of view. But I do have some observations from a listener’s point of view, partly as a result of my own listening but also as a result of exchanges, mostly off-the-cuff, with violinists including Paul Anastasio, Sam Bardfeld, UK-based Graham Clark, Italy-based Stefano Pastor, and Finland-based Ari Poutiainen.
Firstly, for some background, I would like to ask readers to refer back to Fiddle Sessions “Electric Violins and Jazz Violinists 1930s 1930s–1950s”, which appeared in three parts:
There are so many pickups, transducers, on the market today, which connect amplification to the instrument in a number of ways and positions. Different violinists will have their personal reasons for opting for one or another. Some because they seek an acoustic sound as unaltered as possible; others who know there must be some compromise and who settle for the one that suits them best; others who probably do want to take on board an alteration to tonal quality. Hanno Graesser and Andy Holliman included an exhaustive overview of historical and current pickups in Design and Technique of Electric Bowed Stringed Instruments (Frankfurt am Main, 1998, English and German text). Since then many new devices have appeared. It seems as if hardly an issue of Strings or Fiddler Magazine goes by without some recommendation or publicity claiming true acoustic fidelity for, yet again, the first time. It would be very helpful to have comments here about all this from violinists.
As a listener, I do have a preference for amplified acoustic instruments, or purpose-built open-body instruments, over solid-body instruments. For example, Cuban violinist Omar Puente, who has settled in England, plays very fine in a variety of genres. But to my ears there is a problem. He plays a Zeta and I get no sense of varying dynamics, as if it is all at one characterless flat level. I thought to mention this to Sam Bardfeld when I last had the chance to talk with him because he is the author of the highly regarded book Latin Violin (New York, 2001). He told me that many of the Cuban players love the Zeta. Well, perhaps they think it gives them some advantage in handling a certain kind of fast fluidity, although I don’t see why it should. I think they are losing out. Perhaps the manufacturers of solid-body instruments have work to do.
There is nothing wrong with five string models. I dare say more such acoustic instruments would have existed but for the stress on the instrument body. Bacsik, Ponty, Urbaniak, for example, have all played purpose-built open-body amplified instruments to great effect. And I have to admit too that I have heard, and seen on video, Urbaniak play very fine, with Freddy Hubbard, on a solid-body instrument.
Any sense of where the violin is headed in the jazz scene?
Following on from the last question, Stefano Pastor has a unique take on amplification, coaxing husky soprano and alto sax and shakuhachi-like tones from his violin. Of course, he is not alone in introducing new tonal, and phrasing, qualities: Micro-tonal Matt Maneri, for example. Phil Durrant in England and Mike Khoury are among those who can be cited too. But where the violin is headed in jazz has to be related to the much broader question of where jazz as a whole is headed, or, rather, where jazz currently is. There seems to be a general retrenchment. Even Pastor has published a book Violinjazz: analisi degli aspetti esecutivi e tecnico-interpretativi (Monza, 2008, Italian text only but with accompanying CD of the examples) which is really about bebop. Ari Poutiainen’s Stringprovisation (Helsinki, 2009, in English) is also very much concerned with the historical legacy of swing and bebop. And there is certainly everything to be gained by understanding the past. Pastor and Poutiainen have, by the way, recorded a most adventurous album of duets, unreleased as yet. I have written the liner notes so I should own up to a sort of vested interest. Swing and neo-bop facilities are also, I would say, greatly favored at, for example, Berklee, though not, of course, only there. Zach Brock, out of Chicago, I believe, is a fluent bop player. The example of Berklee is worrying. There are brilliant technicians among the tutors and among a number of ex-pupils but also I often detect among the latter a tendency towards a kind of equalized professional competence rather than adventure and invention or simply an individual voice. And that can be a disappointment. Perhaps it is explained partly by career pressures. As if lessons of post-Coltrane and post-Ornette Coleman so-called free improvisation, whether developed through jazz or European sensibilities, to say nothing of Asian inputs, are played out. (It is not for nothing that I write so-called. Violinist Graham Clark, for example, has written a most pertinent article about the structures of free improvisation: “Improvisation” accessible at http://www.grahamviolin.com/articles.html
I have something more to say about the thorny question of brilliant technique: in 1944, the year in which the Stuff Smith Trio recorded their Asch album, and were heard frequently over the radio and at the Onyx Club in New York, violinist Rima Rudina wrote a master’s thesis at Eastman School of Music entitled “Hot Jazz and the Violin”, focusing on Paul Nero’s 1940 Decca album Solo Flight, the sheet music of which was published in 1943. It is indeed a fascinating suite—Nero held a pilot’s license—but all the evidence from the totality of his recording career points to him not being an able improvisor but a composer of intricate, frequently novelty, fixed routines, and a sought-after commercial violinist. Indeed, his 1945 book Fiddler’s Handbook is subtitled “Hot Tips” for the Commercial Fiddler. Eddie South, to whom, incidentally, Nero dedicated his “Hot Canary” arrangement of Poliakin, for all his prodigious classical technique, never played the same piece twice the same way, even in adjacent studio takes. What would be the point? It must have been ground-breaking for Rudina, who went on to record a couple of high-class supper club and world music LPs, to write an academic thesis on jazz violin in 1944 but, whether solely out of her own inclinations or pressure from the academy, Rudina has virtually nothing constructive to say about anyone else—notably, she is quietly dismissive of, for example, Stuff Smith, seeing in him only rough antics in contrast to what for her is Nero’s high “hot jazz” achievement. Only one recording, a 1950s jam session, is known of Nero obviously attempting spontaneous improvisation. Unable to think on his feet, he falls back into the safety of his well-rehearsed compositional phrases. Clearly, this 1944 estimation of what counts as “Hot Jazz and the Violin” is a travesty. Rudina’s own effort at a blues is a classical—and I do not mean classic blues—construct. Nothing wrong, of course, in writing a thesis about Nero and I have to say that what Nero did accomplish is preferable to a certain level of recently schooled violinists who are under the impression, doubtless as a result of having been given the impression, that they can take half a dozen lessons in improvisation and then go out and record in whatever jazz or folk or world style, or all of them at the same time, to which they may have taken a superficial shine.
Back to Ornette Coleman for a moment. It was quite natural for Stuff Smith to reply, when asked by a Swedish journalist—they were touring Europe in the same concert package—what he thought of Coleman’s violin playing: “I think he should stick to his alto sax.” Hard to know what else Smith could have been expected to say when put on the spot like that. In fact, there exists a delightful airport photo of Smith and Coleman together, smiling, looking slightly askance at each other, as if Coleman is saying: “I play the violin a little too, you know.” And Smith: “Oh, er, yeah!” (The photo is reproduced in the book Up Jumped the Devil and in the booklet to the 2CD set I Like Be I Like Bop.) I recounted this to Dan Morgenstern whose response is given here with his permission: “Ornette’s fiddling is oddly appealing, I prefer it to his trumpeting. With some trepidation, I took my father [Vienna-circle writer Soma Morgenstern] to a concert in which Ornette also played his left-handed, amplified violin, which he handled in the most unorthodox manner. My father, who had been at one time a music critic, played the cello as a young man (first chair in student orchestra), and, as you know, was great friends with Alban Berg, a.o., was never hostile to jazz but became really interested as my involvement developed and I was able to take him to concerts, festivals etc. which he much enjoyed [. . .]. About Ornette’s fiddling he said: ‘He gets what he wants.’ I was delighted.”
Of course, the lessons of free improvisation are not played out, as a reading of the variety of releases reviewed in, for example, Cadence Magazine, shows. But I would definitely say there are signs of instability, about what to do or where to go. And therefore about what to think too. There is also an extraordinary phenomenon of improvisatory hip-hop violinists, more interesting than the tendency to predictability of the use, whether ferocious or sentimental, of the fiddle in latter-day rock. Hip-hop violin is fascinating. Who would have thought to find it there. It might be that hip-hop violinists are the true heirs to Stuff Smith’s 1930s antics. But, never forget, those antics were only ever a part of Smith.
In the next part AB talks about unheralded past and present players who have particularly captured his imagination.
about the author
Anthony Barnett has published bio-discographies of Stuff Smith, Desert
Sands/Up Jumped the Devil; and Eddie South, Black Gypsy. He edits Fable
Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies, an online update facility to printed volumes of the bulletin and books. He is a contributor to the latest editions of New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and Music and Musicians.
Since 2002 he has issued previously unreleased and other rare recordings by a wealth of historic jazz violinists on his AB Fable label.
His AB Fable website is http://www.abar.net