Sandy Brown Jazz

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Jazz Violins and Cellos

by Howard Lawes



Alice Zawadski

Alice Zawadzki


Imagine if you can, some of the most famous Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller tunes played without brass, saxophones or drums; impossible perhaps until you come across an album of Polish String bands called Koncerty w Trójce released on the Polskie Radio label with arrangements by Krzysztof Herdzin. As it says in the press release - the music gains a "new quality", "a different type of lyricism, typical of Tchaikovsky or Ravel" and why not? Jazz is all about new arrangements and improvisation. (Click here for details and to sample the album).

String bands of course are not new and were there at the beginning of New Orleans jazz in the early 20th century including guitars, mandolins, banjos, violins, ukulele and bass in the lineup. Henry Graves was playing cello with W.C. Handy's Orchestra in 1917 - listen to them playing The Old Town Pump.




As jazz music evolved in the USA bands used different types of instruments, but in Europe guitarist Django Reinhardt popularised the string band format with a style called Gypsy Jazz, and in collaboration with violinist Stephane Grappelli formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France. This style of music was very popular on both sides of the Atlantic and Stephane Grappelli's violin playing still sets a high standard for later jazz violinists to aspire to. 


Here is a video of the Quintette back in 1939 playing Jattendrai Swing. (J'attendrai - I'm waiting).





Jean-Luc Ponty



One violinist inspired by Stephane Grappelli was Nigel Kennedy who recounts in an article in the Guardian (19 December 2007) how as a 13 year old student at the Yehudi Menuhin School he had the opportunity to jam with Grappelli and played Honeysuckle Rose and Sweet Georgia Brown with the great musician. Another violinist influenced by Grappelli was the Frenchman, Jean-Luc Ponty who began playing jazz violin in 1962. 


Jean-Luc Ponty







In this video Jean-Luc Ponty is with Dr. L. Subramaniam and Billy Cobham playing Conversations in 2003.




In 1967 an album called Violin-Summit was released featuring a quartet of violinists, the same year as a violin workshop at the Monterey Jazz Festival that involved Grappelli, Ponty, Swede Svend Asmussen and American Stuff Smith, who sadly died later the same year. 


Stuff Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson Trio playing It Don't Mean A Thing If You Ain't Got That Swing.





Ponty stayed for extended periods in the USA playing with Frank Zappa and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, while back home in France he set up the free jazz Jean-Luc Ponty Experience while Asmussen collaborated with the Modern Jazz Quartet.  Another European jazz violinist who found success in the USA was Michal Urbaniak from Poland, who after receiving the best soloist prize at the 1971 Montreux Festival Urnaniak emigrated to America in 1973 and experimented with a variety of special electronic effects as well as using a 5-string violin. In 1985 he featured on the the Miles Davis album Tutu and has played with many great American jazz musicians.  Another Polish jazz violinist was Zbigniew Seifert who played "impassioned, Coltrane like violin" with the Tomasz Stanko group.



Listen to Zbigniew Seifert playing in Kraków in 1978





Yehudi Menhuin and Stephane Grappelli



In the UK in the 1970s folk violin music was popular and featured in bands such as Fairport Convention and the Albion Band, but in 1972 the TV talk-show host Michael Parkinson brought Stephane Grappelli together with the famous classical violinist Yehudi Menhuin for what proved to be such a successful collaboration that they recorded an album together of jazz standards such as Jealousy and Night and Day.


Yehudi Menhuin and Stephane Grappelli






Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menhuin playing Jalousie (Jealousy).





Tim Kliphuis


One of Menhuin's students was Nigel Kennedy who is perhaps thought of as a classical violinist who plays jazz, but in fact one of Kennedy's first albums in 1984 was Nigel Kennedy Plays Jazz

Another student of Menhuin was Christian Garrick, son of the great British jazz-choral composer and educator Michael Garrick, and who, like Nigel Kennedy, met and was profoundly influenced by Stephane Grappelli to the extent that he named one of his bands Spirit of Stephane.  Garrick's other bands include the Christian Garrick Group which began in 1990 and the Budapest Cafe Orchestra described as "the finest purveyors of Balkan music this side of a Lada scrap heap", highlighting the fact that Balkan is a more accurate description of the provenance of the music than the word 'gypsy' associated with Django Reinhart. 


Tim Kliphuis


Yet more violinists influenced by Grappelli were the Dutchman, Tim Kliphuis who has played in the U.K. many times and Florin Niculescu who with guitarist Bireli Lagrange recreated the magic of the Quintette du Hot Club de France with a 2001 album called The Gypsy Project. 


Omar Puente came to the U.K. from Cuba in 1997 as a classical violinist but has played jazz with British saxophone stars such as Courtney Pine and Denys Baptiste.


Omar Puente playing Mas Que Nada with J-Sonics at the Canary Wharf Jazz Festival in 2016.





Following in the footsteps of Yehudi Menhuin the internationally acclaimed classical violinist Viktoria Mullova flirted with jazz encouraged by her husband, cellist Matthew Barley. She released an album in 2011 called The Peasant Girl playing jazz violin which she went on to perform at the Proms.  Classical musicians who are used to playing music as it is written on the score sometimes find improvising rather difficult but as Barley writes on his website about musical improvisation "Having been improvising for 30 years now, it is wonderful to see it becoming more and more mainstream, as it once was in the classical music world. Great musicians of old (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and many more) were all master improvisers, and up until the early 20th century, musicians would commonly have a jam, even on the Pascal Roggenconcert platform".  Barley himself recorded an acclaimed album with jazz pianist Julian Joseph in 2009 called The Dance of the Three Legged Elephants.

Barley's observation certainly seems to be accurate with several musicians who began studying classical violin either moving over to jazz or playing both styles as the situation demands.  Pascal Roggen is a violinist from New Zealand who followed the classical path from a very young age but graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with a Masters Degree in jazz in 2006.  In the UK Roggen has played with Andy Sheppard, Denys Baptiste and Soweto Kinch but may be best known as the violinist in the Shez Raja Collective that released an album called Gurutopia in 2016. 


Pascal Roggen




Continuing the association between Poland and jazz violin is Alice Zawadszki and although she is probably better known for her wonderful voice she originally trained as a classical violinist. On her album China Lane released in 2014, Alice plays violin along with guest musicians Shirley Smart, Peggy Nolan and Rosie Toll on cello, Lucy Nolan and Tahan Stevens on viola and Eva Thorarinsdottir and Steven Proctor on violin.


Alice Zawadszki playing and singing Ring Of Fire.




The Atom String Quartet, also from Poland with the classic string quartet format of two violins, viola and cello, were formed in 2010 and have become one of the most popular jazz bands in Poland, representing their country at Jazz Ahead in Bremen twice and performing at the Manchester Jazz Festival in 2016.


The Atom String Quartet playing Triton Blues.




String Ting



Tomorrow's Warriors, who know a thing or two about developing young jazz musicians who go on to achieve great things, have also established a string quartet.  From the same proving ground as Nerija, Binker and Moses, Peter Edwards and Shabaka Huthchings we now have StringTing with  Rhiannon Dimond and  Barbara Bartz on violin,  Julia Vaughan on viola and  Miranda Lewis on cello.  Earlier this year StringTing performed a programme of jazz at the Royal Academy of Music for the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition.






The cellist Shirley Smart is a very busy musician who plays in several bands ranging from classical through world music to jazz.  She is a member of Interchange, formed by Issie Barratt in 2017, in which ten of the UK’s leading female musicians combine in a fascinating new initiative playing new music from women composers and representing a breadth and diversity that crosses generations and cultural backgrounds. Shirley also belongs to the Balagan Cafe Band with Richard Jones on violin and Christian Miller on guitar.  This band formed in 2012 and inspired by Django Reinhart, takes the string band jazz of the pre-war era as a starting point and traditional music from around the world such as Chaabi music from Algeria; Tango from Argentina and folk from the Balkans, to create some really great jazz. The Balagan Cafe Band album was released in March 2018 and as Cristian Miller points out in the album notes the flexibility of jazz makes it a natural way to combine musical traditions in the same way that American jazz drew on blues, African, Caribbean and European music. It features a really eclectic mix of jazz violin, guitar and cello recalling the best of Gypsy Jazz but also embracing music from other cultures. Guest artists on the album are Joe Browne on soprano saxophone, Tommie Black-Rof on accordion and Alice Zawadzski on vocals and while many of the compositions are new, such as the Manouche style Stompin' at the Adjani, it also includes a new arrangement of the old favourite Honeysuckle Rose, the same tune fondly remembered by Nigel Kennedy when he duetted with Stephane Grappelli as a teenager. 


The Balagan Cafe Band playing Lady Be Good.




Right on cue Nigel Kennedy has just released his own album Kennedy Meets Gershwin to rave reviews such as the Guardian - ' Rip-roaring and exquisitely tender – the classical star is a mesmerisingly musical jazz lover and enthusiastic acclamation from audiences at Ronnie Scott's and Cheltenham Jazz Festival' (click here for details and to sample the album).


Nigel Kennedy introduces the album.



In this necessarily brief review of mainly European jazz played on bowed, stringed instruments I have tried to describe a different kind of jazz which some might say isn't jazz at all. However, as Matthew Barley describes, elements of what makes jazz have been around for a long time, and Christian Miller emphasises that jazz has a unique flexibility which has always allowed music from other music genres to be re-arranged and explored. The jazz music being played by young (and some not so young) violinists and cellists is great music in any language. As the young guns from Tomorrow's Warriors and Jazz Refreshed have shown there is an enthusiastic audience for jazz influenced by Afrobeat and Caribbean music and at clubs such as Green Note in Camden there are also enthusiastic audiences for jazz based on the music of the whole world.


Pianist Kit Downes and cellist Lucy Railton playing the title track from their album Tricko.





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Other pages you might find of interest :

Philip Larkin's Jazz
Free Improvisation - Pyne and Grew
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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