Mark O'Connor is hotter than hot these days. The onetime country fiddler's best-selling, Grammy- winning classical albums have made him that rarest of things: a crossover artist whose genre-hopping is less about marketing than serious creative expression and boundless musical ambition.
In Full Swing, O'Connor's new tribute to fellow violin virtuoso Stephane Grappelli - the man he calls his mentor - is something of a time-out in O'Connor's assault on the classical world. Regardless, it's an entirely engaging tour de force. O'Connor is one of those musicians whose skill, artistry and sheer talent - plus his obvious joy in music-making - make you sit back and smile. His affinity for Grappelli is tangible as he and his "swing trio" (with guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Burr), along with guests Wynton Marsalis and Jane Monheit, tear through a set of Swing-era standards and in-the-tradition originals.
O'Connor and Marsalis make an interesting pairing, both for their wide-ranging musical knowledge and their ties to the classical realm, as well as their palpable (and, in Marsalis's case, often exasperating) ambition. Marsalis appears to relish his sideman role here, turning in some of his most relaxed playing in years and giving O'Connor a run for his money on the high-speed "Tiger Rag" and "Honeysuckle Rose". The unfortunately over-hyped Monheit - really more of a cabaret performer than jazz singer - is a bit out of her depth in this company, especially on the up-tempo numbers; she's more effective on a smoky rendering of the Casablanca chestnut, "As Time Goes By". Guitarist Vignola, on the other hand, more than holds his own in the potentially daunting role of playing Django to O'Connor's Grappelli.