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Strung Together

Program featuring four generations of jazz violinists is coming to UCSB.

November 05, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jazz violin hasn't added up to a thriving subplot in the story of the idiom so far, but it has long been there in the miscellaneous category of musical tool, making noise in the corner.

Just recently, the death of Stephane Grappelli--the one jazz violinist who qualified as a household name--brought the case of swinging violin to the public forum.

And to hear violinist Darol Anger speak of it, there's a new, burgeoning interest in the field. He's in a position to know. A versatile player who had a keen role in the Bay Area progressive bluegrass scene and mixed and matched jazz, folk, classical and pop idioms as a founding member of the Turtle Island String Quartet, Anger has his ear to the ground of the violin scene.

"There seems to be an explosion of interest in jazz violin," Anger said, on the phone from his home in the Bay Area. "There are a lot of violin students in high school and college who are dying to play something that's not on the page.

"There is a groundswell going on and I think we'll see the results of that in three or four years, with this huge crop of hot, young rising violin players. They'll be coming out of the woodwork." Anger is doing his share in spreading the gospel.

Last year, he fulfilled a long-brewing dream by creating a touring program called "4 Generations of Jazz Violin," which arrives Monday for its only Southern California appearance, at UCSB's Campbell Hall. The title tells most of the story, in that the tour features the young Regina Carter to mid-career artists Anger and Matt Glaser, retiree Joe Kennedy Jr. and the venerable, ninetysomething jazz wonder Johnny Frigo.

There is a wide swath of stylistic differences between them as well. Carter has made albums of her own, in addition to a resume of side-woman gigs that includes Wynton Marsalis. Glaser has gained acclaim as the head of the jazz string department at the Berklee School of Music--the jazz academic mecca.

Joe Kennedy Jr. is a cult hero credited with making the violin safe for virtuosic displays of bebop; Frigo's credits go back to the early swing era and Jimmy Dorsey's band. Anger's acclaimed and eclectic Turtle Island String Quartetcontinues without a replacement while he pursues other projects.

The violinists all meet in the middle, armed with bows to make music together. "We've developed a motto," Anger said, jokingly. " 'Five violinists, four generations, no waiting,' It's as much a service to myself as anything, because I get to hang out with these guys.

"There's a lot of good fellowship and mutual admiration going on, and really interesting playing. Everybody is way up for it."

As an avid aficionado whose interest in jazz has been increasing in recent years, Anger was up for the challenge of putting together the package, which sometimes required detective work. The undersung hero Kennedy, for instance, was making a name for himself in the late '50s, playing with and arranging for pianist Ahmad Jamal. But reality was setting in.

"Joe decided that there wasn't enough work for jazz violinists," Anger explained, "so in order to be able to raise a family and live the way he wanted, he went into the Richmond, Va., public school system. He came up through there and conducted orchestras and did the whole thing. He wound up being the top administrator in the Richmond public schools, in music.

"He got an honorary position at Virginia Tech University and he created a jazz department there. Now he's retired and he just wants to play."

Anger traces his interest in cross-generational collaborations to his days as a musician in the band led by mandolinist David Grisman, the alternative bluegrass pioneer who often deferred to his elders.

"David has a real interest in the originators of styles, people like Jethro Burns and Bill Monroe. I was pretty young [when I played with David], but I developed an appreciation for how these older guys play and their whole approach."

With the veteran musicians, Anger noted, "a lot of the physical excesses have fallen away, along with the hyper technique, and you're left with the essence of the music and a real ability to get to the core of whatever music they're playing."

For Anger, as both the project ringleader and player in the band, there's a bit of the crusader driving him, as he tries to secure more work and wrangle a record deal to release a live tape of the show.

"I'm really cracking the whip as much as I can and trying to get the word out, because these guys aren't going to last forever. People should hear them while they're still playing incredibly. It's just amazing how well these guys are playing. There must be something about the violin. It gives me hope."

BE THERE

"4 Generations of Jazz Violin," 8 p.m. Monday at UCSB's Campbell Hall. Tickets are $12-16 for students and $14-20 for general admission; (805) 893-3535.

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