You don’t hear much violin in modern jazz, and why the heck is that? The violin cuts over the rhythm section, it swoops and bends notes, it has a rich place in the American tradition, and it can be profoundly vocalized—producing effects as gritty and astonishing as any trumpet or reed instrument. But somewhere along the line, violin was marginalized. Ellington featured it off and on, but it was mostly drowned out of the big band sound, and the only significant bop violinist was Stephane Grappelli, whose quicksilver (but somewhat schmaltzy) fiddle was Django’s foil in the Quinetette of the Hot Club of France.
Since modern jazz solidified in the 1960s, the violin has been either an occasional mark of the avant-garde (Billy Bang, Leroy Jenkins) or an electrified fusion wand (Jean Luc Ponty’s work with Frank Zappa). But maybe things are finally starting to turn around.
Regina Carter has made a splash in recent years playing violin all over the jazz spectrum, even on a major label. And the downtown scene, bursting with klezmer-jazz crossover and classical-jazz hybrids, has fostered a sense that “jazz violin” need not sound self-consciously rustic to be bold. Most recently, Jenny Scheinman’s album 12 Songs set her improvising fiddle lines in the context of modern jazz and Americana with perfect sense and sure-footed understanding.
This recent release by Sam Bardfeld is a worthy next step—a quintet recording for violin, trumpet, vibes, bass, and drums that sidesteps questions of “out” or “in” by telling a series of musical stories in a direct, pleasing way. But still—as the product of the downtown scene, a New York Jewish upbringing, Wesleyan University, and bands as diverse as the Jazz Passengers, Bruce Springsteen’s “Pete Seeger Project”, and D.D. Jackson’s group—Mr. Bardfeld can hardly help packaging Periodic Trespasses as something more complex and self-conscious.
And so it is that this record is Periodic Trespasses [The Saul Cycle], a set of post-modern jazz tunes contained in a narration about the life of a man trying to decide between a career in dentistry or a pursuit of greatness on the Renaissance crumhorn. Seriously. (Or, more likely, not seriously.) The narration consists of seven “chapters” undergirded with music. Stuff like this: “While practicing for a crumhorn recital, Saul sees a scrap of paper floating in through his window. The paper has eight capital letters on it: IMMATRID. Only later that night does Saul realize their meaning.” How amusing or distracting you find this kind of thing is probably a matter of persona taste. But it does help to frame the music as a series of moody episodes, the kind of thing that is telling a story, even if the story is off-the-wall. On tunes like “I.M.M.A.T.R.I.D.”, an initial bass line is Dolphy-ish, with skittering drums and held harmonies for the violin and trumpet, but there is considerable musical narration to come. Two minutes in, the tune shifts to Afro-Cuban groove and piquant minor melody, only to resolve into a walking swing-time bridge. If Saul’s story truly is your concern, the music is more than willing to give you something to imagine, particularly as Mr. Bardfeld’s violin or Ron Horton’s trumpet deftly carves phrases from the rhythm.
Most of the music here is in a sharply rhythmic vein—smart modern jazz that deals in both consonant and dissonant harmonies but always provides a sense of propulsion. Toe-tappers will be challenged but not stymied as the players use clean technique to play neatly with relative freedom. Some tunes have a Blue Note kind of appeal (“Beal”), while others suggest the angular ethnicity of John Zorn’s Masada (“I Was Basking In It”). They almost all move across more than one feel, setting the soloists against different beats or riff patterns.
But perhaps I’ll be forgiven for liking one of the simplest tunes the most. “Portrait of Jessica” starts with a fiddle-tune pattern as background, then unravels as a ballad for violin and trumpet, in series and in harmony. The players seem, on this gentle tune, to be searching for Saul—or for his crumhorn, or maybe just for the right tender notes to bring the music home to the listeners. As vibraphonist Tom Beckham plays a short solo, Mr. Bardfeld and Mr. Horton lay the melody back in gently, and the real purpose of the story is clear: to win our hearts with melancholy.
Toward the end of the album, we learn that Saul has developed a “nocturnal doppelganger, Paul” who is both frightening and unsettling. Saul, however, gets used to his “periodic trespasses.” The doppelganger’s dream is the subject of the album’s last tune—a flowing swinger that lets the whole band play with a combination of Shearing style and Dolphy wit. There are stop-time sections, free-time interludes, straight swing and even military rat-a-tats. So much interest and facility—and this is only a dream! And that of a mere ghostly double at that!
Sam Bardfeld has enough music in him to tell quite a few stories, that’s plain. If popping modern jazz with a downtown wink makes it for you then, by all means, get yourself a crumhorn and join the party.