Avant Violinists

By shoemaker, Bill | Strings, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

Avant Violinists


shoemaker, Bill, Strings


A New Generation Pushes the Limits

In jazz, some instruments have rich, abundant histories, where technical innovation and artistic evolution are clearly traceable from musician to musician, and from generation to generation. Early tenor saxophone giants Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young are linked to such current top players as Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman though a decades-long dialectic, thus reinforcing some stylistic traits and winnowing out others.

As there have been relatively few exponents of the instrument in jazz, the violin's history has been far different. There is no incremental evolution that connects early seminal figures like Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti to the best mainstream violinists of today, such as Regina Carter and John Blake. The jazz-violin vacuum has sometimes been so great that it has been filled by novices.

This was the case in the mid-19605, when saxophonist Ornette Coleman began performing and recording on the violin. Coleman's naive experiments aided him in the exploration of what pianist Paul Bley called Coleman's "erasure phrases," which were deliberately atonal and untempered on albums such as The Empty Foxhole (Blue Note CDP 7243 8 28982 2 1). The other unlikely violinist of the '60s avantgarde was Michel Samson, a disaffected Dutch concert musician who performed with Albert AyleS and reveled in the saxophonist's simple triadic melodies on recordings such as Ayler's Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings (Impulse IMPD2-273). Ironically, they laid much of the foundation for current violin aesthetics in avant-garde jazz and free-- improvised music. Violinists working in these areas share Coleman's belief that attack and timbre are the building blocks of expression. Like Samson, they often subvert considerable training to create a new virtuosity centered on techniques that are at the fringes of concert music and mainstream jazz. Still, these approaches have proliferated in both North America and Europe, producing two types of violinists-those who extend the avant-garde jazz of the '60s with a renewed sense of compositional structure, and others who eschew all trappings of established genres as they delve into free improvisation.

As reflected in their recent recordings, Leroy Jenkins, Billy Bang, and Charles Burnham are African-American violinists whose pivotal work is largely responsible for the violin's transition from Coleman and Samson's experiments to present-day chamber jazz. A first-wave exponent of Chicago's paradigm-shifting Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the late '60s, Jenkins has led boldly configured ensembles of strings and winds, and has composed a variety of works ranging from solo violin pieces to the jazz rap opera Fresh Faust. A one-time student of Jenkins, Bang was a cofounder of the String Trio of New York in the late 1970s. And Burnham replaced Bang in the seminal chamber-jazz unit when Bang left to lead his own groups in the mid-1980s; Burnham also spent most of the '80s and '90s fusing Coleman's liberated harmonies with blues and funk as a member of guitarist Blood Ulmer's Odyssey Trio.

Of the three, Bang's Big Bang Theory (Justin Time JUST 105-2) is by far the most conventional jazz record. Leading an adept quartet with pianist Alexis Pope, bassist Curtis Lundy, and drummer Codaryl Moffett in a program of energetic blowing vehicles, blues variants, and overhauled spirituals, Bang updates the mid-century swing of Claude Williams and Stuff Smith in solos employing exciting chromatic runs and tangy portamento-laced phrasing. Still, this is not a daring program, either by Bang's own standards or by Jenkins' or Burnham's.

On Equal Interest (OmniTone 12001), the debut of Jerkins' co-op trio with Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman and pianist Myra Melford, Jerkins' stinging attack, rhythmic urgency, and plaintive tone are still intact. The program ranges from Jerkins' own "In The Moment"-in which the sauntering theme gives way to an open-ended exchange between Jerkins' edgy jump cuts from pizzicato to arco fragments, Jarman's simmering alto lines, and Melford's shouting blues phrases-to an Armenian folk tune that feathers Jerkins' Gypsy-tinged lines with Melford's mournful harmonium. …

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