Friday, April 16, 2010

Stéphane Grappelli: An Appreciation

There is no more emotionally evocative musical instrument for me than the violin and no more emotionally evocative violinist than Stéphane Grappelli.

The French jazz virtuoso is best known as co-founder of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the first and most famous of the string jazz bands, with guitarist Django Reinhardt, but his most outstanding and rewarding work came later during a long career as a soloist.

The self-taught Grappelli had a distinctive style that mixed tender lyricism, seemingly effortless swinging and hard-edged riffing with extraordinary harmonics. I was fortunate to see him perform in 1976 when he was 68 years old but played like he was half that age. He performed until shortly before his death in December 1997 at the ripe old age of 89.

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Playing jazz violin is especially challenging and bears only passing resemblance technically to folk and classical styles. The musician must adhere to the melody but also improvise solos while interacting with the rest of the band. Jazz violinists also need to play in the higher positions and imbue the music with a rich tone so that their sound doesn't get lost when they solo or get drowned out in ensemble play.

Grappelli did these things as well, and some would argue even better, than other jazz violin greats. These include Joe Ventui, Stuff Smith, Sven Asmussen (who also played jazz cello) and Eddie South, and later with Jean-Luc Ponty, whose great but hard to find Violin Summit collaboration with Grappelli in 1966 is a great crash course in jazz violin styles for the uninitiated.

After studying at the Paris Conservetoire in the mid-1920s Grappelli began busking in Paris restaurants and courtyards playing polkas and waltzes. He also played piano in a silent movie theater, later recalling:

"In the cinema, I had to play Mozart principally but was allowed some Gershwin in funny films. Then I discovered jazz and my vocation and kissed Amadeus goodbye."

Grappelli went on to play piano in a dance band, and it wasn't until he met Reinhardt that he became serious about playing jazz violin. Although the two could hardly have been less similar -- Grappelli was educated and urbane and Reinhardt a freewheeling gypsy -- the two had a powerful musical rapport which led to the formation of the Hot Club in 1933.

The quintet was an immediate success, but in 1939 violinist and guitarist were separated by World War II, which Grappelli spent in London and Reinhardt in Paris. They were reunited after the war, but Reinhardt had pretty much lost his edge and was to die in 1953. Grappelli's career went into eclipse until the 1970s when he was discovered by a new generation of jazz fans and embarked on a solo career.

Grappelli jammed with a Who's Who of great musicians and appeared on hundreds of recordings. Collaborators included jazz pianists Oscar Peterson and Claude Bolling, classical violinists L. Subramaniam and Yehudi Menuhin, vibraphonist Gary Burton, pop singer-songwriter Paul Simon and mandolin player David Grisman.

Grappelli once said of improvisation:

"It is a mystery. You can write a book about it, but by the end no one still knows what it is. When I improvise and I'm in good form, I'm like somebody half sleeping. I even forget that there are people in front of me. Great improvisers are like priests, they are thinking only of their God."

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