Violin: Costel Nitescu, Jonathan Russell, Skye Steele & Aaron Weinstein


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Costel Nitescu Forever Swing Grappelli Forever Le Chant du Monde 2007 Jonathan Russell Puttin' On the Ritz Self Published 2008 Skye Steele Late Bloomer Self Published 2008 Aaron Weinstein/John Pizzarelli Blue Too Arbors 2008

As recounted in the notes to Blue Too, the pioneering jazz violinist Stuff Smith once said: "You can swing more on a violin than on any other instrument ever made. You've got all those octaves. You can slur like a trombone, play staccato like a trumpet, or moan like a tenor [sax]." All of those sounds can be heard on these four CDs featuring violinists, as well as a few others. For the violin belongs to a vast family of bowed instruments encompassing many cultures and styles. Costel Nitescu comes out of the Gypsy/Romany culture that produced Django Reinhardt and influenced Django's French musical partner, Stephane Grappelli. Skye Steele incorporates what he's learned from other World musics, incorporating Eastern and Brazilian scales and techniques into his playing as well as drawing from the rock violin tradition. And Aaron Weinstein and Jonathan Russell carry on the swing tradition of such jazz violinists as Joe Venuti and Smith, with Weinstein adept at another facet of the violin not mentioned by Smith, that it can be plucked to mimic a guitar.

On Forever Swing Grappelli Forever, Nitescu captures the fluidity and forthright swing of Grappelli, although not much of Grappelli's enchanting lyricism. Some of the straight 4/4 pieces with piano, bass and drums are express-lane fast, but Nitescu handles the fleet tempos with admirable aplomb. Maybe a little too admirable, to the point of being facile. He can also be sentimental, almost maudlin, on the slower tempos, making his strings weep on "Ballade pour Ileana" and wringing out the emotion in that most sentimental of songs, "Nature Boy". The best tracks are the three that add guitarist Adrien Moignard, whose exchanges with Nitescu, especially on Django's "Amouman," bring out a welcome competitive spirit in the violinist.

Jonathan Russell was 12 when he recorded Puttin' on the Ritz last year, which is embarrassingly obvious when he sings the lyrics of the title track. Luckily it's the only vocal he does. For his age (and saying this is always the dilemma when reviewing a young prodigy) he is amazing, but he's no Regina Carter, nor even an Aaron Weinstein, who is a mere decade older. He's most comfortable at faster, traditional swing and early jazz tempos, where he can play in a manner akin to Venuti or Smith. That he's surrounded by swing and neo-swing masters like cornetist Ed Polcer, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, pianist Mark Shane, bassist Nicki Parrott (who also sings a sultry "Besame Mucho") and drummer Joe Ascione and holds his own much of the time, proves he's someone to watch. "Limehouse Blues," a duet with Ascione's djembe, is a highlight. But his sound is still thin—except on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," a conscious homage to Smith—and a little wobbly, lacking sustain on ballads. Maybe better for its promise, this is still a worthy album and a welcome harbinger of things to come.

Skye Steele is the only violinist here who isn't rooted in the swing tradition. His quintet—actually a sextet if you include the occasional percussionist—veers toward jazz-rock/folk-rock on Late Bloomer, with electric guitar and bass, plus a crash-and-bash drummer and hand drums, including tabla. Reedman Har-El Shachal favors clarinets and saxophones that often sound Middle Eastern. Steele displays his traditional violin chops on a solo "My Funny Valentine" creating rich harmonies with doubled and tripled string bowing. Rock shuffle rhythms vie with polyrhythms from the Middle East from track to track, with rubato and wafting rhythms suggesting an elegiac tone at times. Often employing non-Western scales and possibly alternate tunings, Steele ends up with an eclectic pastiche here, as if he's trying on a multi- cultural sonic wardrobe in helter-skelter, mix-and-match fashion.

Aaron Weinstein has already arrived. He's the most accomplished new jazz violinist on the block, dazzlingly superb in the nakedly exposed duo setting with guitarist John Pizzarelli on Blue Too. From the opening pizzicato limning of the melody of "I Want to Be Happy" to the closing hip swinger, Bobby Darin's "As Long As I'm Singing," Weinstein and Pizzarelli are in a fertile zone, swinging, creative and fully empathetic. He swings as hard as Venuti or Smith (with touches of Ray Nance), but with his own distinctive style. But he also commands a rich, supple tone on ballads—check the sumptuous cadenza on Benny Carter's "Melancholy Lullaby"—supremely evident on "Little White Lies" taken at an easy heartbeat tempo, with some snappy double-time passages. The title tune, by the duo, is a neat compendium of blues approaches, from wry plucking to bowed testifying.

Tracks and Personnel

Forever Swing Grappelli Forever


Personnel: Yves Rousseau: bass; Costel Nitescu: violin; Antoine Hervier: piano; Yoann Serra: percussion; Adrien Moignard: guitar.

Puttin' On the Ritz

Tracks: Puttin' On the Ritz; Caravan; Darn That Dream; The Way You Look Tonight; Body and Soul; Limehouse Blues; Don't Get Around Much Anymore; Someday My Prince Will Come; Runnin' Wild; Besame Mucho; Nuages; Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.

Personnel: Jonathan Russell: violin; Bucky Pizzarelli: guitars; Ed Polcer: cornet; Mark Shane: piano; Nicki Parrott: bass; Joel Forbes: bass; Joe Ascione: drums and djembe.

Late Bloomer

Tracks: Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair; Monkey-see; Evelynn; Shine; Echo Park; Pepperoni Pizza; Rubber Duckie; Freedom Impressionism; Scarborough Fair; My Funny Valentine; Years Later; I Don't Want to Live On the Moon; The Fall; Pretty Pretty Girls.

Personnel: Skye Steele: violin; Harel Shachal: alto sax and turkish clarinet; Ben Cassorla: guitars; Mike Savino: acoustic and electric bass; Satoshi Takeishi: drum set; John Hadfield: percussion.

Blue Too

Tracks: I Want To Be Happy; Cocktails For Two; Little White Lies; Raggin´ The Scale; Blue Too; You; Don´t Be That Way; Diga Diga Doo; I Guess I´ll Have to Change My Plan; You Do Something To Me; Melancholy Lullaby; The Blue Room; I Wrote It For Jo; As Long As I´m Singing.

Personnel: Aaron Weinstein: violin; John Pizzarelli; guitar, vocals (#7).

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