Nobody would dispute that Stéphane Grappelli is one of the top jazz violinists in history. So it says a lot about jazz history that, during much of the 1940s and early ’50s, he had trouble getting work and made only a handful of albums. That’s no reflection on his musicianship or level of ambition. It’s a big reflection on how the big-band jazz era couldn’t wrap its head around the concept of jazz violin, and also how Grappelli couldn’t be bothered with be-bop.
Fortunately for Grappelli, the options of jazz started to change and widen, allowing him to find a niche or two that really worked for him. He even got the chance to stretch outside of jazz proper (whatever that means). He collaborated very successfully with musicians in the new “fusion” genre and made some important crossover recordings with classical stars.
Born in 1908 in Paris, he survived poverty in a Dickensian-level orphanage until his Italian father was able to reclaim him after World War I. He then studied classical violin at the renowned Paris Conservatory, but was far more intrigued by the violin players he heard on the streets and in the Métro stations. His first plunge into jazz happened at the piano, not on violin, and he started getting regular piano jazz gigs. One night in 1929, a friend challenged him to play “Dinah” on his violin, and he was hooked.
The biggest impact on his early career came from guitarist Django Reinhardt, a Belgian living in Paris. He and Grappelli founded Le Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, introducing the Paris scene to the concept of guitar and violin as solo jazz instruments. Grappelli went on to a long career as the father of European violin jazz and was musically active until his death at age 89 in 1997.
So rosin up your bow and enjoy these eight great tracks by Stéphane Grappelli.
It seems appropriate to start with the first tune Grappelli ever played on jazz violin, here as a duet with his long-time colleague Reinhardt. You can learn a lot more about Reinhardt from Woody Woodward’s 3-part series featured in Copper issues 86, 87, and here—but this track should be enough to intrigue those who aren’t already familiar with his buoyant style.
But we’re here to talk about Grappelli, who comes in at 1:52. His entry note alone shows several typical characteristics of his playing: 1) a gently humorous slide to the main pitch; 2) a lift, or sense of air under his bow, as if he’s breathing like a singer; 3) an elegant, ever simply functional, sound.
- “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”
Speaking of elegance, Grappelli had a breathtaking way with the standard “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” which he recorded many times over the years. Besides the sophisticated brush strokes of his phrasing, the most obvious Grappelli touch is the ornamentation that lets you hear that nightingale sing.
In this recording, he’s with a trio consisting of Maurice Vander on piano, Pierre Michelot on bass, and “Mac Kac” Reiles on drums.
- “Memorial Jam for Stuff Smith”
Grappelli was one of those musicians who wasn’t afraid to learn from the young. And this particular track shows him nodding to his own generation at the same time. The piece is dedicated to American jazz-violin pioneer Stuff Smith, who recorded with Grappelli on a few occasions.
French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was only 30 when he and Grappelli started collaborating. But it wasn’t so much Ponty’s age as his approach to jazz that might have scared off another musician. Ponty played jazz fusion, which integrated electronica into jazz. That meant both a different style and a different type of instrument: an electronic violin hooked up to wah-wah and distortion pedals.
Grappelli himself did not change his style or instrument, but was happy to play alongside the newer ideas. Grappelli’s solo on acoustic violin starts (1:20), followed by a virtuosic piano solo by Maurice Vander acts as a palate-cleanser (2:24) before Ponty does his thing on electric violin at 3:17.
- “Moonlight in Vermont”
Earl “Fatha” Hines (1903-1983) was one of the great jazz pianists of the mid-20th century. He was known for the usual way he accentuated his rhythms. That’s what makes this pairing with Grappelli so intriguing. Hines’ subtle but effective syncopations form a unique structure for the violin to slither around in this fillagreed take on “Moonlight in Vermont”:
- “Tea for Two”
Given his classical training, it’s no surprise that Grappelli befriended Yehudi Menuhin, an American violinist and conductor with an insatiable curiosity about all of the world’s music. The two made several albums together, mainly focused on music that was considered old-fashioned for the time. Unlike his collaborations with Ponty – or, even more oddly, with bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements – here Grappelli’s style matches his mate’s, rather than standing in contrast to it.
The ease and charm of this “Tea for Two” hides some top-notch technical playing.
- “Medley — a) Tzigani; b) Fisztorza; c) Fulginti”
Grappelli live and Grappelli in collaboration with another great musician: you just can’t go wrong. But add to that Grappelli playing gypsy-style violin, one of his signature sounds, and you end up with a true gem. Mandolin master Grisman shares solos with Grappelli in this energetic and sexy set: “Medley — a) Tzigani; b) Fisztorza; c) Fulginti.”
- “Ol’ Man River”
It’s always a special treat to listen to one of Grappelli’s “songbook” albums – collections of standards by specific composers. This is the only one that focuses on music of Jerome Kern, who worked with Oscar Hammerstein II to create the score of Show Boat. Grappelli’s take on “Ol’ Man River” is made almost too sweet by Jorge Calandrelli’s string orchestra arrangement. But Grappelli’s playing is so thoughtful and wistful that the melody is turned into an exquisite sculpture. And at 1:44, he doubles the tempo, so hang on!
- “St. Louis Blues”
Grappelli first recorded this standard in 1935 with Django Reinhardt. Here, in his last recording of it, he is paired with one of the finest of jazz pianists, McCoy Tyner. This recording represents yet another side of Grappelli: He didn’t play a lot of blues, but when he did, he gave it a bittersweet twist. And, of course, elegance.