Once upon a time in the late 2000s, Solvang boasted an official Solvang Jazz Festival, founded by drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper and featuring artists such as Freddie Hubbard, Kamasi Washington, Take 6, and James Moody. Although the festival failed to become an ongoing tradition beyond a three-year run, enjoying high-caliber jazz in this enchanted tourist haven was delicious.
Jazz still makes its way into Santa Ynez Valley each year thanks to the summer jazz concert series Jazz & Beyond, now in its eighth season, which takes place at the inviting, al fresco Solvang Festival Theater. The series launches Sunday, June 16, with acclaimed jazz violinist Mads Tolling and his band Mads Men.
Fittingly for the Danish-flavored burg, Tolling was born in Copenhagen, but he has been based in the Bay Area for years. A young prodigy, Tolling moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music, during which time he met violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (for whom Tolling made a 2012 tribute album). Ponty introduced Tolling to Stanley Clarke, and after graduation, he joined the renowned bassist’s band. Tolling was also a member of the genre-melding, Grammy-winning Turtle Island String Quartet for years. I recently spoke over the phone with Tolling about his solo work and the future of the jazz violinist.
You have performed in Solvang before. Do you have a special attachment to playing there, as a Danish hamlet in America?
Yeah, I think this is our third time in Solvang. I love it there. Sometimes when creating a village away from the motherland, the village becomes more Danish than Denmark itself. In some ways it is a traditional version of what Denmark was 100 years ago. I found the same with Elk Horn in Iowa, which has a Danish Museum and a windmill. It is very sweet how the food traditions live on, and I must say the Danish pastry in Solvang is to die for.
In 2017, you put out Playing the ’60s, new variations theme of the ’60s tunes — even a medley of the Flintstones theme and “I Got Rhythm.” Was there a spark behind that concept, and have you found that audiences relate to what you are doing with that classic body of music?
It is not the first time a jazz artist takes popular songs and jazzify them — Herbie Hancock comes to mind with his New Standard album — that very much influenced me. During the 1960s, the world changed, and the music with it. I have always thought it was a fascinating decade, and I grew up with music from the ’60s, including Hendrix, the Beatles, and Paul Simon. I honestly also thought that Mads Men was a cute name and we could have the sort of Mad Men ’60s look with the suits and skinny ties.
On Playing the ’60s, everyone in the band got to arrange songs that inspired them. For some, they just loved the song; for others, it was their favorite TV show or movie. The main reaction I am looking for is that audiences would recognize a song, and that it would put a smile on their faces given the surprising elements of the arrangement and instrumentation.
Is live performance something you crave doing?
Yes, I definitely live for performing live. It is the sharing between musicians and audience that is so special to me, and you can get that fantastic feeling whether it is a 20-seat venue or a 2,000 one. In some ways, the bigger the venue, the trickier it gets, but overall it is a special feeling for me whenever I play in front of an attentive audience with great musicians.
Your upcoming performances are in different contexts — some with the Mads Men, your quartet, duos, and more. Is that kind of variety something that keeps you fresh and creative in different ways?
Yeah, I think working with different groups keeps it interesting and give me new challenges. I also feel that certain groups can work better for certain venues, depending on size, acoustics and intimacy. In drumless trios or duos, I also like to fill the roles of providing a percussive feel on my violin by doing a chop or strumming pizz [pizzicato] — whatever it takes. I will also go do a walking bass line using my octave pedal.
Sometimes removing sound and instruments can reveal something new about the instruments still playing. Duos are the ultimate challenge as they are bare and exposed; I love making those work.
You put out a Jean-Luc Ponty tribute album in 2012. Do you consider Ponty to be a vital piece of your musical puzzle, both as a musical influence and a musician who literally guided your path and made important early introductions?
Yes, Ponty has been very instrumental in getting me to where I am, and I owe him a lot. He is the first violinist who came at fusion with a comprehensive knowledge of jazz and bebop, and his body of work is astounding. His sound is easily recognizable, which is the case for any truly great player.
He recommended me to Stanley Clarke when I was still at Berklee College of Music. When I last year performed my violin concerto with Kanazawa Symphony in Japan, he offered some of his pieces that were fully arranged for symphony, which worked out great. I also sat in with his band when he did two concerts in 2017.
He really is aware of getting the next generation going, and he is also aware of the challenges we are facing playing instrumental jazz. I think it was easier in the ’70s than now, and he really wants to help and spread the word.
Turtle Island String Quartet was a unique and genre-crossing project, moving easily across classical, jazz, and other musical zones — not to mention a winner of multiple Grammy awards. Was that a rewarding chapter in your musical life?
Yes, it was huge for me. I was a member and partner in that group for almost nine years, and it greatly shaped my musical ideas and also taught me a lot about what it takes to run a band — from the inside. We won two Grammys and did about four months of touring a year. I got to arrange and compose for the group, and I learned a lot about writing for string quartet. Since violins, violas, and cellos sound similar, writing for string quartet is not easy, and you have to have good content to make it work.
You are currently in the upper ranks of jazz violinists, which remains a small scene compared to other instruments. Have you seen awareness and practice of jazz violin evolving upward in the last decade or so?
It is a good question. Of course, I would like to think that we are in an upward trajectory. Some of the biggest names in jazz violin have passed, like my countryman Svend Asmussen, [Stéphane] Grappelli, and Didier Lockwood. Ponty and Jerry Goodman are less active than in the past. We do have a strong group of current jazz violinists, including Regina Carter, Christian Howes, Jason Anick, and Zach Brock.
Where I think we for sure are in an upward trajectory is for kids to be exposed to improvisation and playing groove-based music on their violins. In the U.S., fiddle music has always been a part of the scene, but I feel now more than ever it is merging with jazz, creating a type of crossover that has a strong grassroots movement.
When I went to Berklee College of Music in 2003, there maybe were 40 people in the string department; now there are over 200. This speaks to the awareness that violins can do a whole lot more than sit in the orchestra. I think this trend will continue, and it is spilling into all sorts of genres — like Black Violin [hip-hop] and Lindsey Stirling [pop]. I am all for kids experimenting. Since the violin is such a difficult instrument to learn, you might as well have some fun while playing!
You broke out as a solo artist about a dozen years ago. Are you happy with the way things are going in your musical life at the moment? Does it feel that many threads and ambitions have come together for you?
The last seven years since leaving Turtle Island Quartet has been an amazing ride personally and musically. I had already started my quartet in 2008, as you mention, but it was important for me to stand on my own and to be able to dedicate enough time to my projects.
I am very happy with all the different bands and collaborations with my band and vocalists, which has included Tierney Sutton, Kim Nalley, Kenny Washington, Spencer Day, Tiffany Austin, and Paula West. My two commissioned violin concertos for Oakland Symphony and Pacific Chamber Orchestra were a great challenge, and they were a lot of fun to write and perform. Writing, arranging, and performing with big bands is also something I enjoy, and it is surprising to most listeners to see violin there.
It is hard work to be a musician, and especially the logistical side of booking gigs, hiring musicians, and scheduling can wear you thin. However, the experience of playing in front of an appreciative audience or inspiring young people to play music — it makes it all worth it.
4•1•1 | Mads Tolling plays Sunday, June 16, 3 p.m. (gates open at 2:30 p.m.), at the Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang. The Solvang jazz series continues on with Charged Particles (July 21), Julie Kelly with the Marshall Otwell Trio and Dave Becker (Aug. 18), and the Holy Crow Jazz Band (Sept. 8). Call 686-1789 or see solvangfestivaltheater.org.