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Laurie Niles

An electric evening of jazz violin

April 20, 2009 at 4:08 PM

On Sunday I dragged my sagging soul to Yamaha's Day of Jazz Violin -- and was I ever glad I did. After watching five energetic musicians strut their stuff on their electric violins, I was...well, jazzed!

"That was AWESOME," was my uncomplicated thought, as violinists Christian Howes, Mads Tolling, Charlie Bisharat, Lisa Haley and Antonio Pontarelli took their bows. Here are five people who have explored the medium of electric violin and discovered some of its unique secrets -- music you can make only on an electric.

For those of you who missed it (the whole session was webcast, live from Pasadena), I was there in the intimate audience of about 150 people, armed with the Flip. Unfortunately, these beautiful artists look rather ghostly in my amateur videos -- basically, their faces are featureless! But you certainly can hear them, and get a feel for their performance. And, better yet, Heather Mansell of Yamaha promises that the professionally-made performance video will be available on Yamaha's website within a few weeks. I'll try to remind you; it was well-worth seeing.

When I arrived at the Pasadena Jazz Institute (an appealing venue, which I hadn't been to, even though I live in Pasadena), I took one of the last seats near the stage, where I met Lizzie Lavin, 15, of El Cajon, Calif., and her mother, Cathy Lavin, who came to watch violinist Antonio Pontarelli, who Lizzie's teacher. Lizzie, who is studying both Suzuki and jazz, has been awaiting the arrival of her Viper electric violin since Christmas and will be attending the Mark O'Connor camp in June at UCLA, as well as Stanford University's Jazz Camp. Lest you think all the jazz and fiddle camps are in California, Jazz Violinist Christian Howes runs the Creative Strings Workshop this summer in Columbus Ohio, and Mark O'Connor also has camps in New York City and Tennessee.

But back to the performance! This evening, all the performers played on Yamaha electrics, and first up was Charlie Bisharat, a Grammy award-winner who played for the band Shadowfax, which is probably the first place I ever heard electric violin, back in college, back in...okay never mind! Charlie, playing a "pearl red" EV205, has the picture-perfect vibrato, hand position -- and he also knows what to do with an electric violin. I loved his bouncy step, positive vibe, and the way he interacts with the band -- you can see at the end of this video a little interchange with drummer Russ Miller. Incidentally, other members of the perfectly tight rhythm section were Jerry Watts on bass and Russell Ferrante on keyboard.

At 18, Antonio Pontarelli was the youngest of the group. He began with an arrangement of the Beatle's song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." I remember a music teacher once admonishing me not to tap my toe while playing -- hah! Pontarelli's entire body was a channel for rhythm, and it was very infectious -- toes were tapping everywhere, heads bobbing -- everyone's little video cameras were bouncing up and down. The dance is as much fun as the music, and I wondered how much is choreographed and how much is just spontaneous. His mad rock cadenzas definitely had some classical-leaning virtuoso material, including a rather Bach-Chaconne-ish one at the end of his second solo, Gershwin's "Summertime." (Pontarelli's fiddle: an amber EV205)

Lisa Haley, playing on an "ocean blue" Yamaha SV200 that she calls "Louie," sang in her deep, husky voice while playing in more of a fiddle style. I was totally impressed with this ability to multi-task, as I either play like an idiot or sound like an idiot when I try to do both at the same time. She seemed world-wise, with a no-nonsense competence you just take for granted. Of course she can sing, and accompany herself, and launch right into an improv solo!

After the show I asked Lisa how she manages to sing and play at the same time. "You have a bunch of your friends in a high school band say, 'We need you to sing,' and when you start to put down your violin they say, 'Oh no, now...'" she said. "It was pure peer pressure!" If I wanted to learn to do it, she advised me to play a scale until I'm so sick of it I can barely stand it, and then play the scale while singing a simple song, like "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Mads Tolling, member of the Grammy Award-Winning Turtle Island Quartet and originally from Denmark, seemed to me the most hard-core jazzer of the bunch. He reeled everyone in with "The Chicken," which is first on the video below, and begins with the violin as percussion, a great effect only possible in quite this way on an electric. Mads closes his eyes and rides the band, he seems hyper-aware of the band and ready to take whatever wave comes. Keyboardist Ferrante was grinning ear-to-ear -- "JAM!" is what I wrote in my notes.

Christian Howes, who not only plays, composes and produces, but also teaches electric violin at Berklee, started with somewhat moodier music, and the elegant ending of his first song ("When She's Like Water," written for his wife), made man in front of me sighed audibly, "Ahhhhhh." Somehow Christian can grab as much attention with mellow playing as he can with the fancy stuff, and he does both with style. The short phrases in his second song ("Song for My Daughter,") seemed to speak -- literally, like a very direct form of speech. I found it both thrilling and masterful. Yes, I was having a great time! (BTW both Mads and Christian were playing on a Yamaha prototype electric violin from Japan, which is not yet available).

After this, all five violinists took the stage with this star-studded rhythm section and had one very fun jam, and you will just have to watch it on Yamaha's site when they post it!

What a thrill it was to see such skilled artists working in this medium, the electric violin, and using what is old, what is new and what is universal -- to make it speak!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 20, 2009 at 5:50 PM

Laurie, thanks so much for giving us an open window into the world of electric violin music.  Before reading your blog, I didn't see what an electric violin could do that an acoustic violin couldn't.  Now I can really tell the difference between the two.  I agreed with a lot of your reactions to the music.  In the first video, Charlie Bisharat showed his classical violin training in his left arm posture and his vibrato.  I think the percussion was too loud, often detracting from the violinist.  I'm sure this could be changed by good sound engineers.  Antonio Pantorelli (the second video) was my favorite.  He really made his violin sing with a sweet, rich tone.  I don't know whether such a tone could come from an acoustic violin, but I doubt it.  I think this is one instance in which the electronic violin does things that an acoustic violin can not.  I agree with you about the Bach-chaconne-ish sound to his cadenza at the end of his second song.  In fact, I like all of his cadenzas.  I keep listening to his recording over and over.  As you said, Mads Tolling's percussive playing at the beginning of his set shows what an electronic violin can do that an acoustic violin can't.  I think that Christian Howes's electric violin has a sweet, mellow tone, but lacks the overtones, warmth, and sustain of a good acoustic violin.  I like his back up ensemble very much, especially the keyboardist.

From Michelle May
Posted on April 20, 2009 at 7:27 PM

Interesting videos--I'm very familiar with Christian and Mads' work.  One clarification--the "percussive" effect that Mads' is doing is called a "chop".  It's a type of bowing that can definitely be excuted on an acoustic violin.  It was invented/perfected by Darol Anger as one of the founders of theTurtle Island String Quartet (TISQ).  The chop bowing was used because they wanted a drum like sound to accompany the jazz tunes they were interpreting and writing/arranging--and TISQ has always performed on acoustic instruments.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 20, 2009 at 8:51 PM

Thank you Pauline, for giving this such a thoughtful reading!

Also thank you, Michelle -- the "chop"! I have a feeling I've got a lot of new lingo to learn!

Now that you have me thinking about it, I realize that I've seen Mark O'C do the chop on an acoustic fiddle, and you are totally right that it can be executed on either an acoustic or an electric. The effect of the same technique on the two different kinds of instruments sounded different to me, though.

So it's not really that many of these things can't be done on the acoustic violin, but that the same effect is not likely, or in some cases, not possible. I found the chop on the electric to have a lot more bite, more edge, and also more volume.

Can someone show me how to do it?  ;) It looked fun! I must get to Mark's camp.

From Graham Clark
Posted on April 20, 2009 at 9:52 PM

Here's Darol Anger's mini lesson on the chop:-

And one or two others:-

Thanks for your report on the evening, Laurie



From bill platt
Posted on April 21, 2009 at 12:51 AM

Chop most definitely predates electric violins.

Here's an example of chop en masse. Watch between 1:50 and 2:15. You can see Brian leading the chop a bit, too, when he shows up on camera to the far left.

And thanks Graham for mentioning Darol. He is a really great player (both Darol and Graham:)

From Royce Faina
Posted on April 21, 2009 at 3:03 PM

Any thought about holding interviews with any of these violinists?


From Graham Clark
Posted on April 21, 2009 at 3:30 PM

I think it has to be said that none of the above performances were really "jazz" - decent rocky/funky playing, a bit more old timey at one point, more bluesy/gospelly at another, but none of the fiddlers really swung on these excepts. And it is swing that is at the core of jazz.

This might be down to the rhythm section, but a jazzer will swing anyway.

I bring up this point because it is important. Again and again, the "swing" issue is what is said to be wrong with most violinists in jazz. And, to some extent, I agree. They either follow the Hot Club gypsy jazz "ricky ticky" approach, or  stick to a post Jean Luc Ponty straight eighths fusion/funk vibe. It was the latter we had here.

All the same, it was great to see such a celebration of electric violin -  the players' enthusiasm and skill are clear to see, and Laurie seems quite inspired by the evening. You can't knock any of that!


From Roy Sonne
Posted on April 21, 2009 at 8:32 PM

Hi Graham,

While I agree with you in general, and lament the dearth of real jazz violinists, there are some fresh new voices.

Check out Antoine Silverman at

You won't be sorry.

Also check out Naoko Terai, a glamorous young lady from Japan, playing Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" on Youtube

Chris Howes had done a lot of great stuff. The Yamaha Jazz Day video clip doesn't  do him justice. You might want to ckeck out his website at

Also the Turtle Island String Quartet has had something of a rebirth since Jeremy Kittel joined them.

From Graham Clark
Posted on April 22, 2009 at 2:57 PM

Here's another chop lesson:-

From Mazz Swift-Camlet
Posted on April 26, 2009 at 5:43 PM

another fantastic jazz violinist (one of my faves of today): Mark Feldman

you can see a great video clip of him here.


In the realm of jazz-rock fusion there's also Joe Deninzon. He does a really great version of Stevie Wonder's tune Contusion. That's on his live album called Live Wires (which is my favorite album of his. The energy of his band - all the soloing and the ensemble - is so invigorating)...


And finally, one of my absolute favorite jazz/other violinist/composers: Jenny Scheinman. Just check her out. Words fail. She's so dreamy...



my two cents...

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