A New Generation Pushes the Limits
Photos by Lawrence M. Svirchev
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 Stéphane 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-1960s, 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 avant-garde was Michel Samson, a disaffected Dutch concert musician who performed with Albert Ayler, 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 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 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 Jenkins’ co-op trio with Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman and pianist Myra Melford, Jenkins’ stinging attack, rhythmic urgency, and plaintive tone are still intact. The program ranges from Jenkins’ own "In The Moment"—in which the sauntering theme gives way to an open-ended exchange between Jenkins’ 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 Jenkins’ Gypsy-tinged lines with Melford’s mournful harmonium.
Burnham passes a rigorous test of his versatility and depth of expression on percussionist Susie Ibarra’s Radiance (Hopscotch HOP 2). Ibarra’s Trio with Burnham and pianist/harpist known only as Cooper-Moore, melds such diverse materials as pastoral adagios, African harp music, and Jimi Hendrix’ "Up from the Skies" into an engaging program, prompting Burnham to utilize everything from delicate bow articulations to a sly use of a wah-wah pedal. After hearing Equal Interest and Radiance, one longs to hear Bang in a more challenging setting.
A slew, relatively speaking, of American violinists have emerged in the wake of Jenkins, Bang, and Burnham. Even though they come from various backgrounds, they have, to some degree, gravitated to free improvisation on recent recordings. Mat Maneri, the son of iconic microtonal saxophonist Joe Maneri, has been plucked from the pack by critics; record companies, in turn, have recorded him at every opportunity. In the first half of 2000 alone, Maneri, who plays acoustic, electric six-string, and baritone violins as well as viola, co-led or was featured on five CDs. Three are duo albums: Soul Search (Aum Fidelity AUM 014) is an electric set with guitarist Joe Morris; Maneri switches to viola for Light Trigger (No More 9) with drummer Randy Peterson; with pianist Matthew Shipp on Gravitational Systems (Hatology HAT 530) he plays acoustic violin. All of these contain engaging performances that pivot on Maneri’s strangely inviting, desultory tone, his significant technical refinement of Coleman’s erasure phrases via Joe Maneri’s microtonal innovations, and his ability to turn effortlessly on a dime in a free-flowing improvisation. Yet upon hearing Tales of Rohnlief (ECM 1678), with Joe Maneri and bass virtuoso Barre Phillips, and At the Old Office (Knitting Factory 272) by the Joe Morris Quartet—rounded out by bass player Chris Lightcap and drummer Gerald Cleaver—it is clear that Maneri thrives in larger ensembles, whether he is delving into microtonally charged Klangfarbenmelodie (an approach that gives equal weight to timbre and pitch) with his dad and Phillips, or Morris’ propulsive, often West African–tinged compositions. Morris and Maneri are already poised to become their generation’s update on Reinhardt-Grappelli, a guitar and violin team that epitomizes the genre-bending impulses of their times.
Other young Americans, however, have recorded some equally intriguing improvisations. Electric surrealism prevails on The Other Shore (Cryptogramophone 106), which combines Jeff Gauthier’s electric violins with Alex Cline’s vast percussion arsenal and G.E. Stinson’s electric guitars; it is a program where jarring shards of sound segue into alluring shimmers, and otherworldy hues suddenly take on an earthy glow. Signal processing figures prominently on The Experiment [Blue Jackal BJAC 5036-2], in which Jason Kao Hwang’s duos with Dominic Duval (who plays the custom-made Hutchins bass) are frequently altered by engineer Dave Kowalski’s real-time introductions of delays, reverbs, and processors. Acoustic purists will definitely be distracted by The Experiment, particularly after hearing MBEK (Meniscus MNSCS 005), violinist Evand Kang’s duo album with bass player Michael Bisio.
Hwang and Kang have comparable fluency with the current state of improvised music, and draw upon considerable resources to create substantive, spontaneously generated music. Yet in terms of sheer pyrotechnic virtuosity, all the violinists considered here play second fiddle to Mari Kimura, who is simply stunning on Leyendas (Disques Victo 069), a duo program with Roberto Morales Manzanares, performing on piano as well as Mexican flutes and harp. Kimura brings a rare level of excitement and a sense of grandeur to improvised music, even when she plays unadorned melodies. Manzanares is another rarity, a concert pianist and a folkloric musician, which allows the duo to enter a variety of sonic realms. Particularly when he counters Kimura’s soaring lines with the luminous Veracruz harp, the resulting sonorities trigger association with Impressionist chamber works as well as the mysteries of pre-Columbian Mexico.
The so-called "English School" of European improvised music has the richest violin tradition, or anti-tradition, depending on your vantage. Philipp Wachsmann and Nigel Coombes came up in the polemical 1970s, when idiomatic references were severely pooh-poohed. Some of Coombes’ early performances are collected on Three & Four Pullovers (1975–78, Emanem 4038). The Pullovers, which included guitarist Roger Smith, percussionist Terry Day, and Steve Beresford, a pianist with a penchant for musical toys and cheap electronics, specialized in noise-dominated events. Coombes is roundly militant, incessantly pulling and scraping his strings, only occasionally producing a conventional, if warbled, pitch. Steeped in modern concert music, Wachsmann never heard beauty and abstraction as mutually exclusive. This is particularly true on Some Other Season (ECM 1662), a duo album with percussionist Paul Lytton. Wachsmann gets in his plinks and screeches, but he also produces, both acoustically and using MIDI devices, music that borders on gorgeous. Add Lytton’s real-time electronics and imaginative percussion, and the results are fascinating. Wachsmann can also be heard on two excellent discs by saxophonist Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Towards the Margins (1612) and Drawn Inwards (1693), both on ECM.
Phil Durrant has inherited this heavy legacy without buckling under its weight. He tends to work in settings that favor low volume and an ensemble approach, such as his longstanding collaboration with saxophonist John Butcher and guitarist John Russell. Their The Scenic Route (Emanem 4029) exemplifies how a fastidious sense of balance and a vigilant avoidance of pat gambits transform a vocabulary based on timbre and attack into compelling music, as Durrant’s varied ponticello effects curl about Butcher’s multiphonics and Russell’s layered textures. Durrant’s expanded sense of motivic development—one that gives timbre, rhythm, and attack equal value to pitch relationships—is in the foreground of his often atmospheric duets with bass player Alexander Frangenheim on Further Lock (Concepts of Doing 002). Theirs is an unassuming, subversive virtuosity, which can undermine the listener’s preconceptions about extended technique.
Unfortunately, some of Durrant’s most provocatively quiet work is only available on recordings issued in very limited editions, such as Assumed Possibilities (Confront Recordings FRONT 05)—featuring a quartet with harpist Rhodri Davies, cellist Mark Wastell, and Chris Burn, who plays prepared piano—and Beinhaitung (Fringes CD03)—with a trio rounded out by trombonist Radu Malfatti and Thomas Lehn, who plays an analog synthesizer. They are worth the search.
This article, "Avant Violinists," is part of the Strings Archive, which you can access with a paid site subscription.
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