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Jazz and the French Violinist: Stephane Grappelli and Didier Lockwood

By Benji Knudsen

Jazz is often associated with being America’s true art form. Due to the melting pot characteristics of the United States, so much of our culture – architecture, food, and customs – has linkages to other countries. Many academics, critics, fans and musicians believe that jazz is one of the few true American cultural characteristics. Even though jazz is considered America’s great contribution to the world, it is still a musical form that belongs to all nations. England has produced great musicians such as Dave Holland and John McLaughlin while France is the home of Martial Solal and Michel Petrucciani.

Besides the piano playing of Solal and Petrucciani, France has also produced some fine violin players. Perhaps the best-known French jazz musician was violinist Stephane Grappelli. His violin playing transcended classical, jazz and country styles and his playing permutated through the ranks of American jazz and bluegrass musicians for the past six decades. In 1973, Grappelli recorded Stardust (1201 Music, 1973, 20000), a duet with English pianist Alan Clare. The soft and melodic recording features mostly Grappelli taking the solos with Clare offering peaceful accompaniment. With versions of Hoagy Carmichael’s "Stardust", and the traditional "Greensleeves", one would think that he/she was in an American jazz club. This fine recording is a great example that jazz transcended many styles, instruments, races and countries. With each individual element, the musical form may have mutated or developed into something new but it was always remained true to the jazz idiom.

Along with the great Jean Luc Ponty, Didier Lockwood has long been considered the successor to Grappelli’s French Jazz Violin throne. Like Ponty (who recorded extensively with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra), Lockwood spent much of his career playing rock & roll or fusion. Bands like Mahavishnu, It’s a Beautiful Day and the Flock showed that there was money to be made in playing rock and roll with a violin. Years later, Lockwood has returned to his roots and the man that influenced him. With the album Tribute to Stephane Grappelli (Dreyfus, 2000), Lockwood recruited bassist Niels Henning Orsted Pedersonand guitarist Bireli Lagrene for a classic session that visits the many musical flavors of Grappelli. The three play jazz standards such as "I Got Rhythm", "Someday My Prince Will Come", "Misty" and "In A Sentimental Mood". Surprisingly, the only Grappelli tune on the entire album is "Tears" but there are versions of "Nuages" and "Minor Swing". These two tunes were written by the great guitarist Django Reinhardt, who recorded with Grappelli on numerous instances.

When listening to either the Grappelli of 1973 or the Lockwood of 2000, there is little doubt about the influences of today’s great bluegrass musicians such as David Grisman, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Mike Marshall or Darol Anger. Without Grappelli’s inventive bridging of European folk and American jazz, today’s bluegrass phenomenon would be standing on much shakier ground. Perhaps now that Lockwood has returned the acoustic settings, his music will be embraced by the hordes of acoustic stringed music fans that can be seen at every outdoor festival from Telluride to Winterhawk.