Damn, these bastards can play. Mark O'Connor, who was playing duets onstage with Stephane Grappelli every night when he was seventeen years old, has a truly formidable range of skills on jazz violin. He has assembled a crack bandFrank Vignola is mercurial and scary-fast on guitar, Jon Burr is everywhere he needs to be on bass. This live set from Merkin Hall, recorded in September 2004, is a very pretty document of what three people who are on the same wavelength can do together.
The up-tempo numbers pile changes and riffs on top of each other so quickly that it is dizzying. Their version of "Cherokee" is taken impossibly fast, and both O'Connor and Vignola get the chance to show off plenty. They do something similar with "Gypsy Fantastic," wailing away in a vaguely klezmeric setting; O'Connor constructs his solos the way Matisse constructed his portraits, and Vignola works his Django-magic in both support and lead.
But they're not speed kings either. "Funky Swing," an O'Connor original, actually lives up to its title, giving the whole band the chance to work in mid-tempo pointillist style. And long slow ballads like "Fiddler Going Home" are nicely played, if a bit stiff and boring.
Sadly, it's all rather bloodless. There's no audience noise at all during many of the songs, which is sad on a live albumif your crowd can control itself, you ain't doing your job, mister. And all this precision can get a little too technique-y, like on the "M & W Rag," which is so genteel that it should be wearing a white suit on Memorial Day and sip a mint julep. Not to say the songs aren't perfectly done... just that maybe perfection is a rather soggy ideal to shoot for.
Maybe I'm just annoyed at the pretentious liner notes by Robert L. Doerschuk, or at how O'Connor comes across when he brags in the liner notes about how he is a classical composer and how this is probably the band's last album together because O'Connor's in a different headspace now, and how he intentionally made "Anniversary" a technically difficult piece. Sure, it's pretty awesome; it takes us through about 54 moods and time signatures and voicings in eleven minutes, which is nice...but do we really need to be beaten over the head with this? Does he not trust us to get it?
However, as long as the solos keep coming as fast and furious as they do here, it doesn't really matter. It's hard, it's fast, it's country Romany jazz, it's fairly lovable if a little staid in places. Dig in... just don't read the liner notes.
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Fascinating Rhythm; Cherokee; Anniversary; Ain't Misbehavin'; M & W Rag; Funky Swing; Fiddler Going Home; Gypsy Fantastic; Don't Get Around Much Anymore; Tiger Rag.
Mark O'Connor: violin; Frank Vignola: guitar; Jon Burr: bass.