When you think of the masters of the jazz trumpet, dozens of names pop out, and the saxophone and the piano stand out even more. But when you think of the jazz violin, there is one name, maybe two, but one for sure: the legendary French gypsy virtuoso, Stephane Grappelli. Born in 1908 and still alive and kicking until 1997, his name has been synonymous with the jazz violin for nearly all of the past century.
And now along comes Just A Memory Records’ re-release of his 1987 album, Stephane Grappelli Plays Jerome Kern to show why. Even entering his 80s, the man could play. His sound is pure. He can play mellow and he can swing with the best of them. At times, the larger orchestra softens the vibe and adds a symphonic sound, but it never gets in the way. Grappelli and his crew of regulars are always front and center.
This collection of 11 Kern classics begins with what at first seems like a straightforward interpretation of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” but it quickly morphs into a samba rhythm with some interesting vocal chanting from guitarist Marc Fossett. This transition from simple symphonic lines to the samba rhythms also characterizes the arrangement of “A Fine Romance.” “I Won’t Dance” features some dynamic interplay between Grappelli and guitarists Fossett and Martin Taylor. “The Way You Look Tonight” explores the upbeat possibilities of Kern’s ballad.
“Yesterdays” and “All the Things You Are,” on the other hand, get something of the sweet “gypsy make your violin cry” treatment, but there are few that can manage that crying and avoid sentimentality; Grappelli is one of the few who can do it. “Long Ago and Far Away” not only has some eloquent violin moments, it also has Grappelli playing a few bars on the piano. These are just a few examples of the (then) creative new ways Grappelli and orchestrators Jorge Calandrelli, Laurie Holloway, and Daniel Frieberg look at these standards from the Kern songbook.
Three songs from Showboat highlight the album. “Why Do I Love You” begins and ends with some isolated Grappelli pizzicato plucking and some swinging sounds in between. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” gets an intense dramatic treatment that emphasizes the torchy narrative, but still manages to avoid the schmaltz. “Ol’ Man River” begins as a pathos-filled duet between the violin and the orchestra that moves almost angrily uptempo. Grappelli’s playing honors the difference between honest emotion and manipulative sentimentality.
Album producer Etorre Stratta also leads the orchestra. Fossett and Taylor are joined in the rhythm section by drummers Alf Bigden and Graham Ward and bassist Jack Sewing.
Listening to this album, it is almost as though Jerome Kern had written these songs with someone like Stephan Grappelli in mind. Though I have read that Kern objected to the jazzed up versions of his music, it is hard to believe that he could have had any real objections to what Grappelli and his collaborators have done here. Great artists have long influenced other great artists. This is an album that does Kern’s music the honor of using it as a base on which to build something new and exciting. Jazz, at its best, doesn’t replace, it adds. Grappelli’s Kern interpretations album is jazz at its best.