Oh No! – Not The Violin!?!
Oh No! – Not The Violin!?!
When my son told me he wanted to learn to play the violin, my immediate reaction was: “What?!? No! Not the violin?!?” Then I thought: ok, it’s just a phase. He saw something on tv, a cartoon figure playing the violin or something. And hey, he was only 5 years old. But months and months passed and he kept on nagging: “I want to play the violin!”. Now, I’m not the kind of parent who is keeping his children from developing their talents and fulfilling their dreams, especially musical ones.
Classical violin concertos? Squeaking noises?
But the violin? Anything but the violin, please! I must admit, so far the violin must have been the only instrument that I didn’t care about, to put it mildly. The harsh, squeaking noise that came out of it, gave me the creeps. The violin is dominantly present in classical music and I must admit most classical music gets on my nerves. Growing up, well-meaning adults told me I would learn to discover and love classical music later in life. Being an adult and parent now, I arrived at the stage of “appreciating” classical music, but I’m still trying to love it… Don’t get me wrong, there are some pieces or works I like, but love? Hmm.
Well, OK then…
So, next step was trying to get my son to choose another instrument: what about the piano, like your sister? You can learn songs by The Beatles, or play like Jerry Lee Lewis or Jelly Roll Morton? Or the drums? Have you heard Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich? Or even the trumpet or the saxophone? Listen to those great soul songs with the horn section! … No luck, his mind was made up. Mam gave up eventually and enrolled him into the violin initiation lessons. Sigh.
Can the violin rock? Play the blues? Jazz? Be funky?
Stuck with a kid playing the violin, I was obliged to trying to change my view on the instrument if I didn’t want to get crazy with his practicing. I thought: Can a violin rock? Can it play the blues or be funky? Jazzy? It had to. You should be able to play any genre you want on any instrument? Right?… Right? How come I get the impression the violin is “owned” by classical music? So, I started to look for the violin in what we call popular music.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
Quite soon the name of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown came to my mind. I saw him perform at a blues festival in 1996 and I remember he blew my mind. A charismatic musician, a great entertainer on stage. At that time, I only knew him from a couple of songs on a blues compilation cd. I liked his singing style and his guitar playing, but when he got and played his violin, I was speechless. The crowd went wild. He opened my mind.
Playing the blues like that, on the violin: that was amazing! At least to me, because later on I learned that the blues fiddle used to be rather common. It just rarely got on record and consequently the blues fiddle didn’t spread across the world like the blues guitar did. If Big Bill Broonzy continued the play the fiddle after arriving in Chicago, the blues might sound a lot different now.
Clarence Gatemouth Brown is known as a blues musician, but wasn’t a purist. His mixed genres and played country, jazz, Cajun, electric blues or Texas blues. Also, he was a multi-instrumentalist. He played several instruments, including the guitar, fiddle, mandolin, viola, harmonica and drums! He is a Grammy Award winner for his album Alright Again!, but I owe him my everlasting gratitude for opening my mind: you can play the blues on a violin (or on any other instrument)!
While I was looking into music that was popular during the 1920’s and 1930’s some time ago, I discovered the music of Joe Venuti. He was a jazz violinist who pioneered the use of string instruments with his good friend Eddie Lang, himself a jazz guitar pioneer. Joe Venuti’s style I would describe as uptempo, happy and playful. His violin playing swings like you can’t keep still. I love it. The way he played his solos in an incredibly rhythmic style and lively, fast tempo: he’s a true genius.
Venuti is considered as the father of jazz violin, because he pioneered the violin as a solo instrument to the jazz world. But he also often implemented slides common in blues and country fiddle playing.
Who would have thought I would come to love the music of a violin soloist. A jazz soloist, true.
Papa John Creach
I don’t remember exactly what song it was (‘Soul Fever‘?), but it was on the radio one evening, driving home, I heard this soulful and funky violin playing. I focused on memorizing the name of the artist, waiting for the dj to announce it at the end of the song. Papa John Creach. One might think that radio stations have a catalogue of about 30 songs of the moment that they play over and over, but occasionally you’re in luck – especially during the evening programs – and you discover music that is new to you. This was one evening. Once at home, I looked him up and took my time to get to know his music and his albums.
Blues – rock – soul – funk violin
One thing you can say about Papa John Creach is that he was very versatile. He started out as a blues violinist, playing with Louis Armstrong, T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, etc. But he played jazz, rhythm & blues, rock and even acid rock. During the seventies he teamed up with Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead and other rock bands. This opened the opportunity to launch his solo career and record his own albums on which we can enjoy his unique style that combines soul, rock, jazz and blues with a touch of humor. Why not ‘Plunk A Little Funk‘?
The music of René Costy I only discovered very recently, when a compilation album of his oeuvre was released this year (Expectancy, March 2017). I had never heard of René Costy before, although he was a recording musician. René Costy was a Belgian violinist, classically trained, jazz lover, music teacher, … He had played the Royal String Quartet of queen Elisabeth (of Belgium) before playing in jazz clubs in Brussels. Later on he became resident composer at the Belgian television, where he created soundtracks for radio and television programs.
René Costy recorded for specialized labels such as Editions Montparnasse and the Brussels Selection Records. You can hear the Isaac Hayes-like instrumental funk with wahwah guitars, Stax-sounding grooves with warm organ sounds and soundtrack jazz. His music was practically unavailable on cd or digital download and only known by die-hard vinyl lovers and collectors. This new collection brings him finally available to the digital music listener. And what a discovery it is.
Jazz – funk violin
Can a violin be funky, jazzy, experimental? René Costy says yes!
In many songs, the violin plays the main role, in which René Costy demonstrates his virtuosity. Being a great violinist, his main goal was to create a great sound and specific mood, often for a soundtrack. René Costy may have been a great soloist, but to him the violin supported the song and not the other way around. This attitude was probably the reason he was also interested in using new electronic tools for creating music. He was one of the very first to experiment with the studiosynths, like the Moog. It just might be the reason hip dj’s use Costy’s samples in their songs and hip hop producer J Dilla used a piece of Costy’s ‘Scrabble‘ in his underground-classic ‘Fuck the Police‘.
Another multi instrumentalist was the pioneering viola player John Cale of the Velvet Underground. He doesn’t look for virtuosity, but looks for the sound of droning, shrieking and wailing with his viola. The song ‘Heroin‘ of the self titled Velvet Underground album grooves the violin, or the viola, can rock! ‘Venus in Furs‘ and ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song‘ are other fantastic examples of rocking fiddles.
Another rock band that includes a permanent violin player (and multi-instrumentalist, Klaas Janzoons) is the dEUS. If you’re familiar with their music, you’ll shout immediately ‘Suds & Soda‘ because the violin intro is so iconic. Simple, but what a power intro that is!
Other bands who used the violin, proving it can rock:
- The Waterboys
- The Levellers
- The Who (Baba O’Reilly)
Listening to music now, with a violin playing kid at home, I developed a focus on the use of violin in the genres that I like, and if you listen, you discover it is present in huge amount of songs, but it’s there. Most of the time its playing “the second fiddle”, but once in a while, you’re in luck and the violin gets a more prominent role in the song.
Can the violin rock? Play the blues? Jazz? Be funky?
Yes, it can!
Discovering or rediscovering the violin, I am convinced: the violin can rock, swing, play the blues or soul or funk, or any genre. Moreover, as a listener, it is not so much the instrument that makes you love the song, but it’s the music itself: the composition, the tempo and the rhythm, the soul, and yes, the sound.
If interested in further information on the violin, or the fiddle, in different music styles, a must-read is Fiddling Around The World, a website made with love and knowledge by professional fiddle player Chris Haigh.