Jazz violinist Mads Tolling pays homage to old masters

Mads toll

When violinist Mads Tolling walks around the Bay Area with guitarist Jacob Fisher and their show “Masters of Jazz Violin” (September 27 at the Throckmorton Theater), it will mark a milestone in a journey that began with a fateful conversation nearly a quarter of a century ago.

With teenage bravado and nary a jazz riff in his repertoire, then a 15-year-old classically trained violinist Mads toll once picked up a phone and called the late and legendary Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen. Apart from his nationality and propensity for the violin, Tolling knew little about Asmussen, who played until the age of 94 and died aged 100 in 2017. He wasn’t even sure. having the right phone number, but, smitten after hearing a performance by the musician known in Scandinavia as “The Fiddling Viking”, Tolling was fearless. Learning that he had indeed reached the right person, he asked for lessons.

“He told me he doesn’t teach but that I should just listen to Stuff Smith,” Tolling said in an interview.

Stuff Smith | Credit: William P. Gottlieb

Listening to Smith, an American jazz violinist who used his bow like a hammer to play “the hardest, lowest, dirtiest blues violin” he had ever heard, according to Tolling, was breathtaking. “Sven looked up to Smith and I think he just listened to me say that I wanted to learn jazz but was classically trained. He probably wanted me to hear someone who had set fire to my hair.

Tolling, a two-time Grammy Award winner with the string band Turtle Island Quartet, has lived in the United States since 2000. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston, he was discovered by the French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who recommended that he join bassist Stanley Clarke’s band. Today, the San Francisco-based violinist and composer has performed worldwide with Clarke, Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera, Ramsey Lewis, among others. Forming the Mads Tolling Quartet in 2007 and engaged as an educator and in a number of performance initiatives and collaborations, it’s fair to say that the fire started by Asmussen is burning.

“Absorbing the language of jazz and improvisation, I was like a baby learning English,” he recalls, sounding a lot like a teenage boy in love as he describes diving into Smith’s “Mack the Knife” and “It’s Only A” by French violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Moonpaper.” “I would go note by note with a CD player that could loop 10 seconds so I could do it over and over.”

Emulating the jazz masters not only increased his physical and artistic versatility, but trained his hearing. Listening to Asmussen’s recordings and performances, Tolling admired his mentor’s bebop-on-violin chops. Sven’s “Honeysuckle Rose” is very chromatic, with extended harmonies. Amazing,” he says.

As an arranger for small groups including violin, bass, guitar and drums, Asmussen inserted shout choruses usually heard played only by large groups. Weaving together the sections in which all the instruments play together but do not necessarily play the main melody of the work, these were detailed and “delicate” passages. When Asmussen, in his later years, bequeathed his manuscript maps and other printed materials to Tolling, what he learned was revolutionary. “I always thought of him as a jazz madman, but I could see in his collection that he was a serious musician. He gave me classical studies. He was a scholar of the instrument, a perfectionist. In fact, he wrote his improvisations in the margins. I have probably 20 music books, including Swedish and Danish folk music books. He would take things he heard in church and make them like pieces of jazz.

Mads Tolling at the 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival |

The challenge for Tolling was to play Asmussen’s music while making it his own. An arrangement of “Take Off Blues” adds Tolling’s contemporary sound to Asmussen’s bebop style. “Instead of phrasing over a standard jazz bass line, I approach it with a bit of funk, keep it more modal, and stick to a single key in a solo section that suggests triads that are ‘out there.’ harmoniously,” he says.

And now Asmussen’s imprint is on Tolling’s current projects, a tour with Danish guitarist Jacob Fischer, who was a member of Asmussen’s quartet for 20 years, and a new CD, Mads Tolling Quartet — Tribute to Svend Asmussen. Iconic tunes that Assmussen performed in the 1940s and 50s with guitarist Ulrik Neumann and works like “June Night” and “Scandinavian Shuffle” are featured on the tour with Fischer, alongside Danish folk tunes, songs from the Great American Songbook and pieces by Grappelli, Ponty and Smith.

“We’re going to mix things up, playing not only Sven’s music, but also things associated with him. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,based on a mid-1970s recording made in France by Ponty, Asmussen, Grappelli and Smith, will likely be on the set list. “In the recording you can hear the different ways they played solo. Ponty was young and exuberant; Smith, who was old, was limited so you could hear ideas but he didn’t have the ease that he had on his instrument once. Grappelli sounded good, had new ideas and mastery. Svend’s way of playing was very different, not inside the harmony like Grappelli. Svend played like Charlie Parker before he was Charlie Parker. He played in the bebop language with chromatic scales, challenging rhythmic riffs. It’s still melodic but with the bebop language in it.

About working with Fischer, Tolling says that sometimes his role is to step aside. “Jacob is not a one-chord type player. He fills in the bass, fills in the space. Other times he licks, I respond, like we’re finishing each other’s sentences. I use a chop , hitting the strings percussively, then doing long notes for extended harmonies. When he takes a solo, I feel like I don’t need to step in because he fills in the harmony, melody and bass. frees me to rest, honestly.

When asked if he would like Asmussen to perform until he is 90, Tolling replied, “Yes, if I am physically capable. Sven was delighted to play until recent years when he had a series of knocks. Even then, he was still writing arrangements, inventing new refrains. It was very nice that he was still passionate about music.

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