Jazz violin has a long and wonderful tradition. It also has a history of misunderstanding and over the years there has been much wrong-headed criticism from those who believe that a musical instrument carries an in-built repertoire outside of which it should not be allowed to stray. Even a cursory glance at the reality of the violin in jazz shows otherwise. In the earliest days of jazz, when it vied for popularity with other musical forms, the violin was a commonplace sight on the bandstand. Indeed, dance bands in turn-of-the-century New Orleans were frequently led by the violin and it was chiefly a matter of the volume at which instruments such as the trumpet could be played that edged the violin’s softer sound onto the sidelines. The skill and sheer musicality of the players of the violin in those far-off days cannot be seriously questioned. After all, New Orleans was a major centre for classical music in the USA and few if any other cities could claim to have three opera houses, which provided work for numerous classical players of whom the violinists were logically the majority.
Despite the technical limitations on the violin in those pre-electric days, some musicians persisted with the instrument and through the years there have been several fine exponents, some of whom, had they played a more ‘acceptable’ instrument, must surely have found greater support from audiences and especially from critics who really should have known better. Consider some of these names and reflect for a moment on the extraordinary music they have left us: Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, Claude Williams, Eddie South, Emilio Caceres, Stéphane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen. The latter two enjoyed careers of many decades (Asmussen still playing as he approaches his 95th birthday in 2012) and hence found themselves playing alongside violinists such as Jean-Luc Ponty and Billy Bang.
Continuing the tradition of these artists is Regina Carter, a musician of extraordinary skill who is thoroughly steeped in the history of jazz violin yet is simultaneously aware of and responds to all of the many changes that jazz has undergone in the past hundred years. Consider just three of her records:-
I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey
On this Verve Records album, Carter delves into the rich repertoire of the 1920s-1940s, playing popular and show tunes, among them the two songs that make up the album title, as well as Little Brown Jug, You Took Advantage Of Me, There’s A Small Hotel and St. Louis Blues. In so doing, Carter pays loving tribute to her mother, Grace Carter, who was the first important influence on in her career. The songs are played with a lively contemporary take on the small group style of jazz of the period they reflect. Carter’s musical companions here are Xavier Davis, piano, Matthew Parrish, bass, Alvester Garnett, drums, with guest vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Carla Cook, alongside Paquito D'Rivera, clarinet, and Gil Goldstein, accordion.
On this album, also a Verve Records date, Regina Carter plays in a duo with pianist Kenny Barron and from the first phrases it is vividly apparent that this is a true meeting of minds attuned to all that is good in jazz. Carter observed of this date that she and Barron approached the music as though they were having conversations; in this case. The dialogue just happened to be played not spoken. The music here is drawn largely from the jazz palette, with pieces by Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter and Johnny Hodges as well as compositions by the duettists themselves. The result is music that is interesting, ingenious, and always beautifully played
For her 2010 album with E1 Records, Regina Carter turns to folk music from Africa, applying to tried and tested melodic themes a thoroughly contemporary jazz feel. With her inspired touch, Carter is able to blend the violin’s clear voice with some traditional instrumental sounds of Africa. In this she is aided in particular by Yacouba Sissoko, kora; also on hand are Will Holshouser and Gary Versace, accordion, Adam Rogers, guitar, Chris Lightcap and Mamadou Ba, bass, and Alvester Garnett, percussion. The music, while it might often be unusual to non-African ears, has about it an atmosphere that will be recognized by most of those who hear it. Among the titles are Hiwumbe Awumba, Juju Nani, Mwana Talitambula and Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina. This is a delightful record, filled with moments that prompt reflection and admiration and always underline Regina Carter’s astonishing musical skill.