Jazz Violinists Take the Lead at London Festival

Regina Carter and others lead the way at concerts with strong international flavor


The program for this year’s London Jazz Festival provided more evidence (as if any is needed) that violinists are in the vanguard of string players in the jazz world.

During the two-week festival, which took place this past November at venues across London, violinists Regina Carter, Nigel Kennedy, Piotr Jordan, and Omar Puente were set to lead their own bands. Much to my disappointment, Kennedy cancelled, though at press time he had rescheduled for December (it should be worth the wait: a jazz-violin summit with Kennedy, Puente, and Chris Garrick). I did, however, catch Puente and Carter.

Cuban violinist Omar Puente settled in the UK 12 years ago and has worked as a sideman for such top players as jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine. He also has fronted the band Cubania. Despite these credentials, Puente has only now released his first solo CD, From There to Here.

A warm and engaging performer, Puente quickly bonded with his Jazz Café audience, coaxing them into singing and dancing, and giving instruction in Nigerian dancing style (hips are very much involved). He played on an electric violin, modifying the sounds with foot pedals, taking it down to cello range when he briefly delved into a Bach cello suite. This was par for the course: Puente was classically trained, played in Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra, and enjoys flexing his classical chops. Puente was at his best in the Latin tunes and in a few well-chosen ballads, but his efforts were often undermined by his less-inspired band mates.

Regina Carter, the reigning diva of the jazz violin, has always been careful about her companions as she ventures into new musical byways. For her latest project, Reverse Thread, she has been exploring the music of Africa and she brought along first-rate support for the show at Ronnie Scott’s club: accordion player Will Holshouser, bass player Chris Lightcap, drummer Alvester Garnett, and Sengalese musician Abdou Mboup on the kora (a type of African harp) and drum.

Carter’s set began with “Artistiya,” a lively tune by the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam. The African expedition took us through Madagascar (with impressive fast fiddling from Carter), Senegal (a witty piece by Baaba Maal about his first impressions of New York City), and Uganda (a touching field recording of a young woman singing preceded the band’s interpretation). The polished performance drew an enthusiastic audience response, and I can’t have been the only person there looking forward to the upcoming release of the Reverse Thread CD.

A highlight of the evening’s non- African material was “Oblivion,” from Carter’s Paganini: After a Dream album, and featured Carter accompanied by Holshouser’s expressive accordion. This got me to thinking: how many jazz accordion players have their own bands? Chalk up another point for the jazz violinists!

*This article appeared in Strings February 2010
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