Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 3, 2012

A violin with vigor

In the hands of Mads Tolling, these strings can rock

by Rebecca Wallace

Don't be surprised if, about 10 years from now, there are a bunch of up-and-coming teen jazz violinists who all say they want to do the chop just like Mads Tolling.

Tolling uses the chop — a rhythmic technique that hails from bluegrass fiddling — to bring on the funk and the beat. Keeping a steady pulse, he can make that violin sound like a drum, the heartbeat of his quartet.

In June, Tolling wowed an audience of tiny tots who had turned out for a kids' concert at the Stanford Jazz Festival. It turned out to be "like an instrument petting zoo," he said with a chuckle.

"I was doing the chop, and they had these little instruments. They all tried to do the chop and were going crazy," he said, adding modestly, "They must have liked that."

Lots of people like Mads Tolling. The 32-year-old East Bay musician, who comes from Copenhagen, has won applause from audiences, critics and fellow players for his hybrid style — and for his efforts to give the violin the same kind of prominence in American jazz that it has across the pond.

Jazz violin "has been a tradition in Europe, particularly with the gypsy-jazz movement, that has existed ever since Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli," Tolling said, referring to the musicians who founded the pioneering Quintette du Hot Club de France in Paris in 1934.

"Being from Europe, I grew up with that kind of sound. To me it's a totally familiar kind of sound," Tolling said. "It can be a lot of fun to play it in front of people, see the surprise on people's faces."

Tolling, apparently, never gets tired of sparking surprise. For nine years, he played viola and violin with the Bay Area's Turtle Island Quartet, which is known for its spirited musical experimentation. With the quartet, he won Grammy Awards for Best Classical Crossover album in 2006 and 2008.

He left the group and its hectic touring schedule earlier this year to focus on his own projects, which include his Mads Tolling Quartet: violin, guitar, bass and drums. The foursome will play a free concert at Stanford Shopping Center on Aug. 9 as part of the annual SFJAZZ series.

Tolling is also an experienced composer and teacher; he currently serves on the faculty at Berkeley's Jazzschool Institute.

The violinist, a summa cum laude graduate of the Berklee College of Music, is often praised for his technical skill. But all along, from Turtle Island to his current solo concerts, he's drawn attention for his fresh, genre-crossing approach that is diverse even for the world of fusion jazz.

The 2008 Mads Tolling Trio album "Speed of Light," for example, includes both a solo violin rendition of Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" and a rocking, bowing version of the Led Zeppelin classic "Black Dog."

After that album, the trio of Tolling, guitarist Mike Abraham and bass player George Ban-Weiss expanded to a quartet, adding drummer Eric Garland. Drums, Tolling said, kick in "a little more firepower." The foursome's 2009 album "The Playmaker" features an even more pumped-up "Black Dog," as well as an arrangement of a Danish folk song.

Tolling does a lot of the arrangements for his quartet, sometimes drawing on his classical background, sometimes inspired by jazz greats like the French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. (His quartet's latest album, which came out in May, is called "Celebrating Jean-Luc Ponty: Live at Yoshi's.") In his "Black Dog" arrangement, Tolling said, he was striving for a sound that rocks hard but that also contains humor and drama in its dynamic changes.

You might call Tolling's music "eclectic." Many critics have.

The musician is a bit leery of that moniker. "That can be dangerous, because people may feel it's strange or weird," he said. "I think what we're probably trying to do more of is trying to play great melodies and even songs that people can hum along with ... and to hear pieces you wouldn't necessarily connect with jazz."

Tolling said he'd rather describe his sound as "diverse." The quartet's new album, he said, epitomizes that spirit, filled with music by Ponty or inspired by him.

"Featuring music like Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin: all these great guys from the '70s and '80s, the fusion era," he said. "It tells a little about what my band is about. ... It's very virtuosic and at the same time is very groove-oriented."

The players get to stretch, too. Tolling's arrangements sometimes feature the instruments playing unusual roles. For example, in the tribute piece "Pontification," the bass and guitar take the melody while the violin chops along with the rhythm underneath.

In between performing and recording, Tolling likes to lead educational activities for kids like the Stanford Jazz one. Recently, he and some former Berklee classmates played in elementary schools as part of the San Francisco Symphony's "Adventures in Music" program, bringing in a rich mix of classical and jazz.

It's all about drumming up enthusiasm in young minds for the inventive possibilities in music, which are ever growing in popularity, Tolling said.

"They were not expecting a string quartet to play 'Night in Tunisia,'" he said. "If you went back 40 years ago, you wouldn't see that."

What: The Mads Tolling Quartet plays its diverse jazz arrangements as part of the SFJAZZ Summerfest series.

Where: Stanford Shopping Center between Nordstrom and Crate & Barrel, 180 El Camino Real, Palo Alto

When: From 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 9

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://sfjazz.org/sfjazz-summerfest for more on the weekly series, which ends Aug. 16 with a performance by Quinn DeVeaux and the Blue Beat Review.

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