Musings on the Evolution of Jazz Violin: Part Five Capturing the Imagination
by Anthony Barnett
It must be pretty obvious where my original, and some of my later, allegiances lie so I shall not dwell too much on them except to say that in searching for players who truly capture the imagination I do not seek a new Stuff Smith— or Eddie South—or Venuti or Grappelli or Asmussen or Nance. I read recently—I am sorry, I have mislaid where—“The world does not need another Grappelli.” Particularly true of Grappelli, as I have tried to express, to little avail I fear, in earlier parts of this interview, but also true of all the original masters and others who are less well known, in a couple of cases as yet unidentified even.
There are many violinists whose virtues, for one reason or another, I can appreciate. It would be invidious to set about naming them all. I am bound to omit some so I shall not even try. Instead I shall concentrate on a very few.
Of those who are long gone Ray Perry is the standout link between swing and bop. He definitely died too young. What we do have of him consists of tightly knit chamber-like pieces with Lionel Hampton’s small group, two sets of privately recorded lacquers, and trenchant modernist blues backings to Ethel Waters with J. C. Heard’s orchestra. Good but not enough. He did record after that, with Illinois Jacquet, but only on alto sax. We have to wonder what he would have done had he lived into the LP era and post bop developments. And why wasn’t the recorder switched on when he jammed with Smith and Nance, as recounted by Sabby Lewis? We have to wonder too what Juice Wilson would have done with his violin had he not disappeared from view following his 1929 London recordings with Noble Sissle. A truly phenomenal bop violinist who is often overlooked is Elek Bacsik. His two LP albums for Bob Thiele: I Love You and Bird and Dizzy: A Tribute have never been released on CD. That’s bad.
I have, to put it mildly, more than a few soft spots for Billy Bang, who traces his lineage to Smith, and the late Leroy Jenkins, who traces his lineage to South. Lineage or not they are both truly original and inventive voices and I am not interested in hearing any animadversions concerning techniques. To borrow a quote from Soma Morgenstern (see Part 4 in Fiddle Sessions August 2010) “They get what they want.” Actually, they get far more than that. And in their different ways they are also significant composers.
I am utterly bowled over by the Max Roach Double Quartet, the first touring version of which included, along with Maxine Roach, the late Gayle Dixon and her sister cellist Akua Dixon. This was not the first incarnation of the Double Quartet but it was the first stable personnel. For some unaccountable reason no recording by this historic version of the Quartet has been released, though tapes exist. I count myself fortunate to have heard a few airchecks and the more so to have heard extraordinary private rehearsal tapes of the string section alone with Max Roach’s brushes on the telephone directory.
But what of my Desert Island Discs? If, as a castaway, I were permitted recordings by only one present-day violinist I do not have to think long about who that would be. India Cooke. As I have written in a postscript to a celebration of Ginger Smock in The Strad (November 2010), Cooke’s improvisations range from the quietly lyrical to innovative duets with bassist Jöelle Léandre. The latter perhaps no surprise given Cooke’s one-time membership of Sun Ra’s aggregation. But if, in your book, that may not be a recommendation, do not be fooled: Cooke is the most musically and violinistically accomplished player imaginable, as well as being a truly unique voice, who has accompanied the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder. But back to her skills as an improvisor: seek out at least the following (the dates are of release, not always recording): her own RedHanded (Music & Arts, 1996), guest appearances with George Sams Nomadic Winds (Hat, 1982), E. W. Wainwright African Roots of Jazz (Plainisphare, 1990), Lisle Ellis What We Live Fo(u)r (Black Saint, 1994), duets with Jöelle Léandre At the Le Man Jazz Festival (Leo, 2006), Fire Dance (Red Toucan, 2006), Journey (NoBusiness, a Lithuanian label, 2010). And what shall I say about her sweet collaboration with Barbara Cooke, her mother, Sometimes I Feel: A Collection of Negro Spirituals for Voice and Instruments (Barbara Cooke, 2002)? I shall listen again on my island’s solar powered CD player.
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