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Musings on the Evolution of Jazz Violin Part Four: Bop to Hop

August 2010 7 Comments


Anthony Barnett (photo © Toraiwa)

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:

Part 1  | Part 2  | Part 3

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

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  • Julie Lyonn Lieberman said:

    I would like to add to Anthony’s wonderful interview, to let folks know that The Electric Violin Shop, located in North Carolina, is the only store in the world dedicated to every bowed strings amplification option known on the planet. They give excellent phone support and are an incredible resource. I remember the old days, when we bought every little thing that came out, hoping for the right solution. EVS can save everyone a lot of time and money! http://www.electricviolinshop.com/index.cfm

  • jan palethorpe said:

    Hi Anthony,

    very interesting article – where can I find some info on the hip hop violinists you speak of?
    I just arrived in NY after seeing Ornette Coleman play his horn and violin at the San Marino jazz festival in Italy.
    best wishes Jan

  • Anthony Barnett said:


    Thank you very much. EVS definitely the place to go.


    For the most obvious person who immediately comes to mind visit http://www.miribenari.com but there are many other and youtube and bing or google search should lead you to them.

    Very best Anthony

  • Anthony Barnett said:

    I guess I should have mentioned the hiphoppers Black Violin, who take their name from an album by the Stuff himself.

  • Graham Clark said:

    Thanks for the link to my essays, Anthony.

    I would like to comment on the use of pick ups or dedicated electric violins. My own preference for most jazz or improvising settings is to play my acoustic, unamplified. Ifthat waon’t work, then I use a hyper-cardioid condeser mic, which was something that Mark Feldman suggested to me.

    Of course, this only works up to medium volumes, owing to feedback problems, so a different solution needs to be found for very loud settings.

    Aside from the kazoo-like qualities of almost all solid violins using piezo bridge pickups, the biggest drawback is the response of a solid fiddle. An acoustic instrument has a level of springiness that allows the player to use the bow in a huge variety of ways. The instrumnent itself has tensions and flexibility, while on a solid you only get the give of the string. There is no springiness in the instrument.

    I have an electric that does have that give, because it isn’t totally solid and mounts the pick up and bridge in a springy bar. However there are still feedback tendencies, and a lack of certain resonances, so I need to balance the EQ with a parametric equaliser.


  • Mark Woodyatt said:

    I thought it might be pertinent to this discussion to add a little of my own experience. Just to fill some of my esteemed colleagues and the general community in, I like to think of myself as a classically trained and funk-fusion influenced world violinist. I am thankful to both be able to read and improvise to nearly anything. It’s an amazing gift to have that I’m very thankful for, and I’m always looking to improve on my feel and approach, but I have to stress ‘being adventurous’ is key in discovering my (and possibly your) limitations. Learning technique and listening to as many possible genres and artists helps too; )
    I have been using the same acoustic violin for the past 14 years, for a variety of applications…Classical, country, fusion, rock and jazz, to name a few, and I’ve been perfectly happy with this violin, for the most part.. Once I decided to step it up and get it (a 1996 Gliga Vasile Romanian Instrument-one of the last this master oversaw himself) modified, I went up to Yonkers to Ron Fletchers shop on a recommendation from my teacher Rob Thomas of NYC. He simply cut and installed an L.R. Baggs bridge pickup and adjusted the action by lowering the bridge height. This fine piezo pickup, paired with or without the Para-acoustic D.I. is very nice for the money and I love it. Granted, Ron adjusted the action, but from years of experience with this, I’ve noticed a dramatic difference when it comes down to strings, the idea of which prompted me to write this response in the first place.
    I’d like to point out that my experience with strings is a bitlimited, as are my funds…and there are some new strings on the market specifically for electric violins, but I’ve had much success using either medium tension dominants, or medium tension D’Addario helicores(which I bought after going to Jean-Luc Ponty’s website and seeing that he liked these…) I’m a fan of Jean-Luc’s sound, especially when it was it’s electric freshest-like on Visions of the Emerald Beyond by the great Mahavishnu Orchestra and Cosmic Messenger. However, perhaps some of those afforementioned problems with the dynamics as Anthony mentioned, such as with the Zeta could be averted with the correct light-to medium tension strings and with the right bow. Anyone ever try a “baroque” bow. they sound great with jazz-at least the fine one that the Eastman school let me borrow way back when I was a jazz violin major there in 2003…(I’ve alas long since returned, but I use a bow currently that is made by a baroque expert that seems to sound better on the lighter strings and have quicker action. Bingo!
    Though I still don’t own a solid body(Grant money, please!!) I stand by my acoustic hybrid- bc it still sounds great. Aside from high decibal situations, I can recommend to Anyone who has sound issues that are unsatifactory, that you start from the pickup to the amp with the highest quality cables and components, and if there are any issues-try experimenting on warming up the sound by plugging into certain drivers and effects. I like the Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail for a little warmth and ‘verb(at the end of all the fx), and I plug my DI into the ‘Ego-Booster’ drive pedal, with the blue light-for anything that needs a punch-which sends a crisper signal that can be tailored to quality and brightness of sound the situation/music demands. From there, I send the signal into a whole smorgasboard of Fx for my fusion applications. The dynamic contrast with my wood fiddle would be hard to beat with a solid body, so I have to agree with Anthony that it’s hard to beat. I mean, Stuff Smith had a great sound over 60 years ago, so it’s kind of hard to get better than mic’ing a nice acoustic..which I do whenever I can….I will continue to update you all as I discover new sounds, and look forward to learning more through you. Thanks!

  • Matt Holborn said:

    I am a studying jazz violinist, I have spent alot of time effort and money worrying about how to compete with the other members of a jazz ensemble. I dont like the feel of the solid body electric violins but I dont like the feedback you get from miking up the violin or using contact mics etc. I have resigned to using a pick-up on my acoustic violin. Iv worked out tho that its really just a question of how you want to sound! I listen to a lot of Didier Lockwood and from what Iv got from videos and recordings he generally uses a pick-up on an acoustic violin. I think he switches between the Schertler transducer (which i now use) and another form of bridge pick up. He tends to go through a Roland Jazz Chorus amp also. Iv seen him use a contact condenser mic when playing with smaller ensembles with other acoustic instruments.
    Playing jazz on a violin with a pick up Iv found requires a different technique. Generally the sound is generated with more ease, it requires less pressure with the bow therefore making it easy to swing and play in the soft wispy way that Didier does. Didier doesn’t use his arm so much when playing swing, most of his groove comes from his fingers, when this technique is used in an acoustic setting, say with a couple of guitars and a bass, there is no way of cutting through without digging in a lot more. This often results in loss of swing!
    I guess Grappelli could do it without a mic in the beginning of his career, but I think that was why he tended to stay in the top register. Later on in his career he used a condenser mic, he used the bottom end of the violin a lot more then. I think he could get away with it as he played such soft music and the musicians he played with later on where always very understated and soft (in a really good way!)

    The sound of a bridge pick up on a violin is a very distinctive sound, if you go through the right amp and you work out how to coax the sound you want from it I think thats great, its something I’m really trying to do myself.