Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Didier Lockwood: Jazz and the Violin

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Not everyone likes Jazz played on a violin.  For some fans, the music seems out of place when performed on this instrument.

Those who disapprove of it view the violin as falling into a category that broadly includes the Hammond B-3 organ, the accordion and the harmonica; instruments which are better suited to other purposes like the circus or some form of novelty entertainment than to Jazz.

These dissenters think the sound of the violin is more befitting a 19th century drawing room than a 20th century Jazz club.

I have been a fan of Jazz violin for many years, ever since the first time I heard the music played in the capable hands of violinists like Joe Venuti, Ray Nance and Stuff Smith.

When it comes to Jazz violin, however, the French have made it into something of an institution.

In France, the name that readily comes to mind when Jazz violin is mentioned is the work of Stephane Grappelli, especially the recordings he made with guitarist Django Reinhardt and The Quintette du Hot Club de France primarily in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Grappelli’s successor is Jean Luc-Ponty who brought the French Jazz violin tradition into modern Jazz and beyond with his adoption of the electric violin and his interest in Jazz-Rock fusion.

Ponty moved well beyond Jazz to become a recognized star on the World Music stage, but not before passing the French Jazz violin “baton” [bow?] to Didier Lockwood who made his debut recording – New World - in 1979 for MPS’s PAUSA division [#7046].

But whereas Ponty had made the jump to Jazz-Rock fusion from an earlier career deeply rooted in the Jazz tradition, Lockwood came to Jazz from Rock and always viewed the two as one style of music - in other words – fused.

Irrespective of the instrument in question, this was the case with many Jazz musicians whose apprenticeship was essentially formed in the 1960s; Rock was not alien to them, but rather, was accepted as having something legitimate to offer as a way of putting their own stamp on Jazz.

From its earliest days, Jazz had always been a melting pot as the Creole music from which it developed combined elements of African and European musical traditions in its place of origin, New Orleans.

Why not meld or infuse Jazz with a Rock “in-the-pocket” beat or use its melodies and more simplified chord structure as the basis for Jazz improvisation?

To Jazz musicians coming-of-age in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no need to search for an answer to this question. They question wasn’t even raised.

Enter Didier Lockwood and his Jazz-Rock, electric violin, both of which I first heard on the aptly named New World LP.

On this recording, Didier is joined by a rhythm section made up of Gordon Beck on piano, Niels-Henning, Orsted-Pedersen on bass and Tony Williams on drums, who all serve to lend authority to its more Jazz-oriented selections.  The quartet is augmented by three additional musicians for the Rock themes on the LP.

As Didier’s career has progressed over the past 30 years, the three dozen or so recordings that Didier has issued under his own name pretty much follow the same pattern, although some such as the 1996 Storyboard [Dreyfus FDM  36582] with Joey DeFrancesco [organ], James Genus [bass] and Steve Gadd on drums and the 1999 Tribute to Stephane Grappelli [Dreyfus FDM 36611-2] with guitarist Bireli Lagrene and bassist Niels-Henning, Orsted-Pedersen have a stronger, “pure” Jazz orientation either due to personnel or themes, or both.

Didier’s magnificent playing on the Grappelli tribute dispels any question about his Jazz roots. What he lays down in his solos on this recording would be startling for their conception, originality and execution on any instrument, let alone a violin.

Lockwood’s recordings are all adventures in sound as he seems to want to experiment with everything that’s been going on in popular instrumental music over the past, three decades.

And, to varying degrees, they all come together successfully in Didier’s music primarily because “Lockwood is an immensely gifted player, combining a virtuosic technique with an attractive musicality.” [Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.]

For some of the reasons expressed at the outset of this piece, Lockwood’s music is not “everyone’s cup of tea.”

If you are not into Jazz violin, they you won’t be into the extremes to which the sound of that instrument is taken in some of Didier’s music.

Not a fan of electronic instrument, then don’t go near Didier’s stuff.

Heavily laid-on Rock beats, simplified chords and musical structures that occasionally unravel into free form not your thing? Best to take a pass, then, on Lockwood’s music.

But should you like to hear Jazz violin in a new dimension, a sampling of Didier’s music is a “ticket” [billet?] to a thrilling and innovative series of adventures.

Simply put, Didier Lockwood is an exceptional Jazz musician, whatever the context: straight-ahead or fused with other musical motifs.

Most of the cover art from Didier’s recordings are on display in the video tribute to him which you will find at the end of this piece. Fittingly, perhaps, the video uses as its audio, the title track from his New World LP.

And here are some excerpts from the insert notes by album’s producer, Joachim-Ernst Berendt:

“Of all lands, France is the country of great jazz violinists. The first was Michel Warlop who died in 1947. He - not Django Reinhardt or Stephane Grappelli - was the ‘Chef d'0rchestre’ when these two made their first big-band recordings in the early thirties. In 1937, when Warlop became aware that Grappelli was the better violinist of the two, he gave one of his violins to Grappelli.

In so doing, he established a tradition - the Warlop violin keeps being passed on to the most pro­mising French jazz violinist. Grappelli passed it on to Jean-Luc Ponty.

And in January, 1979, Ponty and Grappelli decided that Didier Lockwood would be the violinist most worthy of owning Michel Warlop's instrument. Grappelli presented it to him during a concert at the Theatre de la Ville de Paris.

Didier, born in 1956 in Calais, comes from a French-Scottish family in which there is an ‘abundance of musicians.’ His father was a professor of violin at the conservatory in Calais. His brother is a pianist. A cousin is a bass player at the Paris Opera. Didier studied at the famous Ecole Normale in Paris. When he was only 16 he received a first prize from the French copyright society SACEM.

He had composed modern concert pieces in serial and twelve-tone form. Through English blues music he first discovered Rock, then Jazz. For three years he belonged to the French Rock group, Magma. He was, understandably, influenced in the beginning by Jean-Luc Ponty.

But then Zbigniew Seifert became important. When this record was made, we were all feeling the impact of the death of that great Polish violinist, who had died only five days previously in Buffalo, New York. Didier dedicated his composition, Zbiggy, to his memory.

He said, ‘No other violinist has moved or influenced me more strongly.’ Stephane Grappelli has used his insight and knowledge to help Didier quite a bit. He has, wherever possible, presented Didier in his concerts. They have often played together in violin duos.

Didier Lockwood has been heard for years at many of the important festivals. He played in Montreux in 1975 and 78, in 1976 at the Castellet Festival (where he met Tony Williams!), in 1978 at the festivals in Antibes and Donaueschingen. Impressed by his success at Donau­eschingen, we decided to make this recording. It is Didier's first.

Didier Lockwood: ‘l have always tried to play with the best musicians. The greatest way to learn is to play with the best, because in this way you're obliged to give your best.’ Hence the personnel on this record. Here Didier truly has the best.  …”