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Fiddle Sticks

Former childhood fiddle prodigy Mark O'Connor has stayed true to his first love as he busts through a new genre

By Mike Connor

"It's an interesting year for me," says fiddle whiz Mark O'Connor. "I've got my classical [Americana] trio, a jazz trio, an album out that bluegrass people are liking, and I'm still doing my symphonic work--right now I'm finishing a concerto for violin and cello. So it's one of those kinds of feelings that I have where everything is firing on all cylinders."

O'Connor describes his increasingly prolific output as a "slow kind of ascension" in productivity that is slowly but surely articulating all of his childhood musical interests. He was a fiddle prodigy with classical training who fell in love with hot swing. At 17 years old, after a series of fiddle competition victories in Seattle, Wash., he got a job touring with his idol of idols, the legendary French violinist Stephane Grappelli, whose fabled partnership with Django Reinhardt in Quintette Du Hot Club propelled him to international fame in the '30s. Grappelli was 70 years old when the teenage O'Connor landed the job, but hot as ever.

"I was scared to death," says O'Connor, recalling the experience. "At that point [Grappelli] seemed like the whole world to me. It was an incredibly innocent and vulnerable time of wanting to continue to be the student and wanting him to be the master, and he was that for me. But then all of a sudden I had to get up onstage at Carnegie hall and trade licks him. It was a lot to take in."

In the '80s, O'Connor was one of the most sought-after session men in Nashville, performing on over 450 albums for everyone from Dolly Parton to Clint Black. Now, some 30 years after the Grappelli days, O'Connor has his own Hot Swing Trio that'd make his late maestro proud. He'll be performing on Sunday, March 14, at the Santa Cruz Civic, alongside fellow Grappelli touring alumnus Jon Burr on the double bass and guitarist Frank Vignola, another prodigy who played with Reinhardt himself at the age of 6. Together, the trio has released two albums commemorating both Grappelli and Reinhardt, enlisting jazz luminaries Jane Monheit and Wynton Marsalis to help them flesh out the second one, In Full Swing.

Hillbilly Classical

But in all his work, there are ever-present hints of Americana--even in his chamber music compositions. He's performed two original concertos right here at the Cabrillo Music Festival, but just last weekend at Villa Montalvo, the Eroica Trio premiered an O'Connor piece inspired by Johnny Cash. Mostly, though, he indulges his rootsy urges in his Appalachian Waltz Trio, a project of "new American classical music" that O'Connor began with acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer, and which earned O'Connor a Grammy in 2001.

In his Hot Swing Trio, O'Connor merges elements of classical violin phrasings with vernacular styles of jazz, blues and swing, which, as O'Connor points out, are also amalgamations of a melting pot of musical ideas.

"Throughout history there's been good composers kind of going out into the field and finding little gems of folk culture to experiment with," says O'Connor. "And I probably could safely say that I go one or two steps beyond those ideas and embrace the style of music and the techniques used to play that style, and try to incorporate that into the newer compositions."

O'Connor characterizes his intellectual curiosity as a journey of exploring the different sounds of Americana and of discovering where various musical bridges cross, using the bridges as a metaphor to compose and play music. The result is often refreshingly unique yet comfortably familiar--an intuitive blend of intellectually distinct styles of music.

"You know, it's funny," says O'Connor, "because my creativity does rely heavily on intuition, but the intuition was there right from the beginning. And as the years go by, I understand more completely what I naturally was feeling in my childhood. It's like becoming older and wiser."

Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio performs Sunday, March 14, at 7pm at the Rio Theatre. Tickets are $50 Gold Circle, $30 adult, $25 students and seniors with ID, and $15 UCSC students with ID, available in advance through the SC Civic Auditorium Box Office (831.420.5260); night-of-show tickets will be sold (availability permitting) at the Rio Theatre beginning at 6pm (831.423.8209).

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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