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Jazz violin is the use of the violin or electric violin to improvise solo lines. The earliest references to jazz performance using the violin as a solo instrument was during the first decades of the 20th century. Early jazz violinists included Eddie South, who played violin with Jimmy Wade's Dixielanders in Chicago; Stuff Smith; Claude "Fiddler" Williams, who played with Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy. Joe Venuti was best known for his work with guitarist Eddie Lang during the 1920s. Georgie Stoll was a jazz violinist who became an orchestra leader and film music director.
Since that time there have been many superb improvising violinists including Noel Pointer, Stéphane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty. While not primarily jazz violinists, Darol Anger and Mark O'Connor have spent significant parts of their careers playing jazz, while emerging artists like Sara Caswell, Scott Tixier and Jeremy Kittel are equally fluent in both progressive and older styles of jazz. Violins also appear in string ensembles or big bands supplying orchestral backgrounds to many jazz recordings. Recent fast progress in the modern jazz violin expression has resulted in extensive pedagogical research and publishing. Among the best-known and worldwidely acknowledged contributions in advanced instrumental technique is Stringprovisation by Ari Poutiainen.
The violin is a bowed string instrument with four strings usually tuned in perfect fifths. It is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the violin family of string instruments, which also includes the viola, cello, and double bass. A violinist produces sound by either drawing a bow (normally held in the right hand) across one or more strings (which may be stopped by the fingers of the other hand to produce a full range of pitches), plucking the strings (with either hand), or a variety of other techniques. In jazz-rock fusion styles, jazz violinists may use an electric violin plugged into an instrument amplifier along with effects such as a wah pedal or a distortion fuzzbox.
Traditional and Swing era
Jazz violinists included Clarence Black and J. Wright Smith, who recorded in the 1920s with Jelly Roll Morton. Joe Venuti paired with guitarist Eddie Lang until the latter's passing in 1933. Classically trained Eddie South began his career in the 1920s and performed with Europeans following a 1928 visit there. Stuff Smith, Ray Nance and Claude Williams were other noteworthy jazz violinists.
European jazz violinists included Stéphane Grappelli (1908–1997), a French jazz violinist who founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France with guitarist Django Reinhardt. It was one of the first all-string jazz bands. After the war he appeared on hundreds of recordings including sessions with Duke Ellington, jazz pianists Oscar Peterson and Claude Bolling, and jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Svend Asmussen (b. 1916) is a jazz violinist from Denmark who worked with Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, and Duke Ellington. Asmussen was invited by Ellington to play on the Jazz Violin Session recording in 1963 with Stéphane Grappelli and Ray Nance.
Jean-Luc Ponty (born 1942) is a virtuoso French violinist and jazz composer. By the mid-1960s he had moved towards jazz, recording with Stéphane Grappelli and Stuff Smith. Ponty's attraction to jazz was propelled by Miles Davis's and John Coltrane's music, which led him to adopt the electric violin. Critic Joachim Berendt wrote that "Since Ponty, the jazz violin has been a different instrument" and of his "style of phrasing that corresponds to early and middle John Coltrane" and his "brilliance and fire". In 1967 he visited the US for the Monterey Jazz Festival Ponty subsequently worked with Stéphane Grappelli, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Frank Zappa, and appeared on more than 70 recordings.
His symphonic approach to jazz fusion made him a popular fusion artist of the 1970s. In 1972, he featured prominently on Elton John's Honky Chateau album. In 1977, he pioneered the use of the 5-string electric violin, with a lower C string. He sometimes also uses a 6-string electric violin called the Violectra, with low C and F strings – not to be confused with the violectra he played from the late 1960s to the mid-80s which had 4 strings, but tuned an octave lower. Ponty was among the first to combine the violin with MIDI, electronic distortion boxes, phase shifters, and wah-wah pedals. This resulted in his signature, almost synthesizer-like sound. In 2005, Ponty formed the acoustic jazz fusion supergroup Trio! with bassist Stanley Clarke and banjoist Béla Fleck.
Modern Jazz Scene
The violin is well-represented in modern jazz and improvisational music. Mark Feldman (born 1955) is one of the leading performers in modern and contemporary jazz violin, along with Jean-Luc Ponty, and Mat Maneri. Regina Carter regularly tops both readers' and critic's polls while playing in an earthy, R&B-influenced style. Zach Brock, Christian Howes, and Scott Tixier are examples of the younger generation of jazz violinists gaining wider recognition. Ola Kvernberg, Bjarke Falgren and Ari Poutiainen again represent original voices from the Northern Europe.
In jazz-rock fusion styles, jazz violinists may use an electric violin. Jazz fusion groups typically use rock instruments such as electric guitar, bass guitar, electric keyboards, and drums; to compete with these loud instruments, violinists often use an amplified violin that is plugged into an instrument amplifier. Moreover, the use of an electric violin allows the violinist to apply effects such as a wah pedal, phaser, reverb, or a distortion fuzzbox, to create unusual new sounds.
An electric violin is a violin equipped with an electric signal output of its sound, and is generally considered to be a specially constructed instrument which can either be an electro-acoustic violin capable of producing both acoustic sound and electric signal or an electric violin capable of producing only electric signal. To be effective as an acoustic violin, electro-acoustic violins retain much of the resonating body of the violin, often looking very much like, sometimes even identical to, an acoustic violin or fiddle. They are often varnished with bright colours and made from alternative materials to wood.
The first specially built electric violins date back to the late 1930s and were made by Victor Pfeil, Oskar Vierling, George Eisenberg, Benjamin Miessner, George Beauchamp, Hugo Benioff and Fredray Kislingbury. The majority of the first electric violinists were musicians playing jazz and popular music. Electric violins typically have piezoelectric transducer pickups and/or magnetic pickups built into the body of the instrument. Like an electric guitar, an electric violin may also have volume and tone potentiometer knobs for controlling the sound of the instrument.
Like other electro-acoustic or electric instruments, an electric violin is often patched into a preamplifier, impedance-matching device, and/or a Direct Injection (DI box) box before it is routed to the PA system, electronic effects, or the instrument amplifier.
- Reviews on Stringprovisation
- Berendt, Joachim E (1976). The Jazz Book. Paladin., p301
- Ponty bio
- Iyer Voted Jazz Artist of the Year in DownBeat Critics Poll. DownBeat Magazine June 23, 2015.
- The 2014 Expanded Critics Poll. JazzTimes, March 13, 2015.
- Regina Carter's Jazz Genealogy: NPR. NPR Music, March 5, 2014.
- Stringprovisation: A Fingering Strategy for Jazz Violin Improvisation by Ari Poutiainen
- Jazz Fiddle Wizard by Martin Norgaard
- Jazz Philharmonic by Randy Sabien
- Improvising Violin by Julie Lyonn Lieberman