Out of the Box: Marsalis's GRAMMY-Winning Violin Music

Feb 7, 2020

Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis weaves multiple music traditions together and crafts an entirely unique Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite for classical violinist Nicola Benedetti. 

WHAT: Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto & Fiddle Dance Suite / Nicola Benedetti, violin, with the Philadelphia Orchestra & Cristian Macelaru

MUST LISTEN: I particularly enjoy the Blues movement from the Violin Concerto, as well as As the Wind Goes and Nicola's Strathsbey from the Fiddle Dance Suite.  

WHY THIS MUSIC: I've wanted to feature this music since I first heard it last summer because it's so cool and taps into so many musical traditions. And with Nicola Benedetti winning this year's GRAMMY for Best Solo Classical Performance, this is as good a time as any! Plus, this album and the music on it are a celebration of having multiple passions and interests, which I deeply appreciate. Why love just one thing? Love it all! 

This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand. 

Wynton Marsalis is one of those musicians who crosses genres with ease.

Born in New Orleans in 1961, Wynton Marsalis picked up the trumpet at an early age and intended to follow a classical performance path, before jazz took hold of him in '80s. Since then, he has kept his feet firmly planted in both worlds, releasing multiple jazz and classical albums over the last thirty-plus years. In fact, he is the only musician to win a GRAMMY in both jazz and classical traditions in the same year.

Today he is best known for his work as a jazz musician, composer, and bandleader, and as artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. But his most recent compositions, his Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra and his Fiddle Dance Suite, are actually for (and in collaboration with) the Scottish classical violinist Nicola Benedetti. Both pieces are entirely unique, taking their cues not only from the jazz and classical worlds, but from folk and blues traditions too. 

Fusing all of those compositional traditions together is no easy task, a fact not lost on the composer. "I love jazz music and I love the orchestra," says Wynton Marsalis in a BBC documentary on the writing of his Violin Concerto. "Now, I think the two can come together. I may not be the person to do it, but somebody can do it." 

Violinist Nicola Benedetti
Credit Andy Gotts

For Nicola Benedetti, whom Marsalis has mentored since she first broke onto the international concert scene in 2004 at age 16, there is no doubt as to who the person is to do it.

"I mean," she enthused to me in a recent interview, "try to think of other musicians who have genuinely loved, played, studied, and analyzed the music of Bach, Beethoven, Bartók, and Shostakovich, just as much as they have Duke Ellington or John Coltrane or Miles Davis, and equally that of all the folk traditions, and the early Blues traditions!"

The end result is fantastic, and both the Violin Concerto and the Fiddle Dance Suite achieve exactly what Marsalis intended to do: to faithfully weave a multitude of musical traditions together, creating pieces that are not wholly jazz nor classical, but something entirely new. 

ABOUT THE MUSIC

One of the most wonderful things about becoming acquainted with this music was reading Wynton Marsalis's description of his influences and goals with his Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite, while listening to the music unfold. I encourage you to do the same.

Here is how Marsalis describes the four movements of his Violin Concerto:

  • Rhapsody is a complex dream that becomes a nightmare, progresses into peacefulness and dissolves into ancestral memory.
  • Rondo Burlesque is a syncopated, New Orleans jazz, calliope, circus clown, African gumbo, Mardi Gras party in odd meters.
  • Blues is the progression of flirtation, courtship, intimacy, sermonizing, final loss and abject loneliness that is out there to claim us all.
  • Hootenanny is a raucous, stomping and whimsical barnyard throw-down. She excites us with all types of virtuosic chicanery and gets us intoxicated with revelry and then…goes on down the Good King’s highway to other places yet to be seen or even foretold.”

Fiddle Dance Suite for solo violin is in five movements and Marsalis describes each one as follows:

  •   “Sidestep Reel: In the 19th and into the 20th century, repetitive, even metered reels and hornpipes were the centrepiece of many a dance. Easy and fun, their infectious, sing-songy melodies stayed in the mind and on the tongue. The melodies of this reel, however, are a homegrown concoction of commonality between traditional fiddle tunes, the Baroque, ragtime, bebop, the quartal melodies of modern jazz and the fancy variations on themes as popularized in the 19th century.
  • As the Wind Goes is the wistful late-night song of a lullaby, a campfire song, a ballad…a spiritual. It is sung as if on the wind, yearning to experience once again that which will only ever again live as memory.
  • Jones’ Jig: The Irish jig, the African 6/8 bell pattern, the shuffle rhythm of jazz and the drum style of Elvin Jones all play around with the relationship of three in the time space of two. The juxtaposition, negotiation and reconciliation of these opposing rhythmic perspectives create interesting musical relationships all over the planet.
  • Nicola’s Strathspey: in the traditional strathspey, improvised embellishments, syncopated dotted rhythms and the use of space between notes create expectation, momentum and surprise. These same elements and their effect on the listener are mirrored in the blues.
  • Bye-Bye Breakdown: this is good ol’ Saturday-night-barn-dance, hoedown fiddling. It revels in the whining cry of open double stops, in all types of musical onomatopoeia from train sounds to animal calls to country whistling, and in the steady 2/4 rhythm that is as basic as walking. The harmonic framework of several popular fiddle and folk tunes provides a practical grid for Nicky to cut challenging melodic and rhythmic figures. A relentless stream of sixteenth notes with double stops is designed to tire fiddler and dancers.”

You can read the full liner notes for the album at Wynton Marsalis's website.

Watch the BBC documentary on the making of the Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto: