This exploration of the legacy of swing music as played by the great string ensembles of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli was actually, due to the extraordinary talent and inspiration of group leader Mark O’Connor, much more than that. In fact, as an expression of the range and depth of American popular music throughout the last century, this performance has few equals. While much of the material may have been familiar, the complex and beautiful arrangements, the tremendous empathy shown by the musicians, and the overall tone of wonder with which the songs were played gave the entire evening a special glow. For those expecting the original trio responsible for O’Connor’s recordings under the “Hot Swing” banner, the personnel onstage were perhaps reason for a brief moment of disappointment, but once proceedings were underway, all thoughts of other musicians faded. Bassist Kyle Kegerreis kept fabulous time throughout two very demanding sets, and both guitarists, Matt Munisteri and Julian Lage, were dazzling.
The first set opened with a pair of originals, then moved on to compositions like “Nuages,” which O’Connor played alongside Grappelli when he was just a teenager. Since that time, O’Connor has matured into the most distinctive and powerful popular musician on the violin. His clarity, control, and tone are all strictly in balance and devoted to the service of the music. He played an extended solo piece as the second offering of the second set that was truly unforgettable, a tour of the musical world as refracted through his instrument and sensibility that began somewhere east of the Mediterranean and ended way out west of the Pecos. In between, there was a little bit of everything, but performed and executed in such a way as to make of this musical mix a glorious and fully integrated whole.
The great discovery of the evening was a mesmerizing young singer named Heather Masse. Rail thin and angular in the manner of a modern art muse, Masse ripped through half a dozen numbers with the clarity and self-possession of a stage veteran. One of the greatest things about O’Connor is his dedication to mentoring young artists, and in Masse, he has found a true rising star.