released 2005 OMAC Records (dist. by Allegro and IODA)
Acoustic, progressive violin and Django-style guitar jazz played by Mark O'Connor and his Hot Swing Trio featuring Frank Vignola and Jon Burr. Writing about the live concert at which this recording was made, respected critic Terry Teachout, wrote for the Washington Post, '"what I find most exciting about the Hot Swing Trio is the collective willingness of its members to knock down the artificial boundaries between seemingly different musical idioms. I can't wait to hear the CD that comes out of these concerts.'
By Robert L. Doerschuk
There are specialists and there are generalists, in music as in life.
Then there is Mark O'Connor, one of those few who somehow play both roles at
From his childhood performances as a prodigy in Texas traditional fiddling
through his conquest of mainstream country in Nashville's competitive
country music scene and more recently to his emergence as a modern classical
composer and performer, O'Connor demonstrates repeatedly his almost unique
ability to get to the heart of one demanding musical language after another.
It's essential to keep this in mind while assessing O'Connor's performance
on Live in New York. This is the third in a series of recordings by his Hot
Swing Trio – and likely the last, at least for the time being, but we'll
address this shortly. What's more to the point is that this is his
definitive statement in the style introduced more than half a century ago by
the archetypal "gypsy jazz" fiddler Stephane Grappelli. Live in New York,
then, is an homage, an original statement, and more than that a gift to
those waiting to make their contributions.
More than that, it also makes clear that O'Connor has achieved an insight
into this genre that's comparable to Grappelli's. He was thirteen when he
first heard the master, playing with guitarist Django Reinhardt on the
records that documented their marriage of Romany folk music and American
jazz. Shortly after that O'Connor attended a Grappelli concert. Exuberant,
rhythmically irresistible, romantic, sometimes sentimental, and always
technically demanding, the music thrilled the young violinist, who
immediately began transcribing the essential recordings. Within a year
O'Connor was playing recitals that featured precise, note-for-note
renditions of solos by Grappelli and other swinging jazz violinists, whose
names he had discovered in his research: Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, Eddie
All of this he accomplished on his own; he would have no jazz violin teacher
until the opportunity arose to work with Grappelli himself. When mandolin
innovator David Grisman got the call to accompany the legendary violinist on
an upcoming tour, O'Connor, just seventeen, flew from Seattle to San
Francisco to audition for and secure the vacant guitar gig in Grisman's
band. "Even though I was principally the guitarist in the group," he says,
"Stephane took me under his wing and would insist on having me play at least
one or two violin duets with him on each show."
Playing side by side with Grappelli, his inspiration and now his mentor, was
a transformative experience. "I was able to glean, from up close, the
technical and stylistic elements of Stephane's playing – matters of vibrato,
of how to slide into notes, and how to use the bow to better accent a jazz
phrase. The mechanics of making the music come alive on the violin were very
difficult to get from the recordings. Being around him, it became much
clearer to me how he applied violin technique to create this incredible
Through the years O'Connor's love for "hot swing" only intensified, to the
point that he put his own group together to explore and – more significantly
– extend the possibilities suggested by this idiom. The Hot Swing Trio –
O'Connor, guitarist Frank Vignola, and bassist Jon Burr – released their
first CD, Hot Swing!, in 2001, then followed with In Full Swing in 2003. It
was a remarkable balance of talents: Vignola and Burr each possess deep jazz
credentials, which in Burr's case included a twelve-year run in Grappelli's
band. With O'Connor's background in traditional, folk-oriented music, the
two critical elements were present in the mix, and when stirred together
with high doses of virtuosity and fluid improvisation, they yielded a flavor
all their own …
… which is, ultimately, the real point of Hot Swing, the band as well as the
style. "We began as a specific tribute to Stephane Grappelli and Django
Reinhardt," O'Connor explains. "Then we built on that, much as 'gypsy jazz'
grew through several stages of evolution, until we reached the broad range
represented on Live in New York, encompassing influences of American culture
in our ensemble playing, improvising, and composition."
In other words, O'Connor's premise from the start was that this form of
music, though associated with a specific time and place in history, is alive
and open to growth. The same can be said, of course, about any type of
music, as O'Connor has demonstrated in many other projects. It's his
practice to respect the borders that define the limits of every genre – and
then to freely cross those borders, bringing with him gifts whose effect is
to enrich the way we interpret and hear music in general.
"During all of my Hot Swing Trio exercises I was involved largely with
writing classical music," he points out. "This brought an aspect of a
chamber music sensibility to my efforts with the trio, which you can hear
very clearly on Live in New York. Some of the compositions reach pretty far
in terms of style and the demands of ensemble and parts performance.
'Anniversary' is a good example, in that it extends the structure of the
blues, adds odd time signatures and dissonant harmonies, changes tempos –
yet through the entire effort we were essentially playing the blues. The
structure and the spirit of improvisation affect each other, so that we have
to play the written parts in an almost off-the-cuff way while also
organizing some of our improvisations to hit certain harmonies together, for
example, to enhance the structure. It's like creating an entirely different
Having accomplished all this – reviving a once overlooked style and
demonstrating its undiminished vitality – O'Connor admits to feeling that
familiar urge to seek past new horizons. Live in New York documents this
moment of arrival and departure: Recorded impeccably, executed flawlessly,
it completes the trilogy that had begun with Hot Swing! and In Full Swing.
Just as important, it reminds us that wherever his muse leads him in years
to come, O'Connor will astonish and then move on once more, to enrich
whatever music he encounters with lessons learned along the way.
Robert L. Doerschuk is a former editor of Musician magazine and author of
several books on music.