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Music We Missed: Mads Tolling's Violin Fusion

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There's a new album which begins with a song by Thom Yorke, originally written for his rock band Radiohead. But this version of "Just" comes from a San Francisco Bay Area jazz musician.

In This Series

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Mads Tolling's new album The Playmaker features guest artists such as Stanley Clarke, Russell Ferrante and Stefon Harris. courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Mads Tolling

Mads Tolling's new album The Playmaker features guest artists such as Stanley Clarke, Russell Ferrante and Stefon Harris.

courtesy of the artist

Mads Tolling is a virtuosic violin player. His 2009 record is called The Playmaker.

Tolling is best known for his work with the adventurous Turtle Island Quartet, a string ensemble. With that group and on his own, Tolling delights in breaking down musical barriers. The Quartet won a Grammy for its take on John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

And Tolling's new jazz record begins and ends with rock tunes, covering lots of musical ground along the way. Tolling says this kind of music — "crossover" — used to have a bad reputation.

"Crossover used to be Pavarotti singing 'If I Were a Rich Man' or something," he says. "Or people really crossing over not really knowing the other styles. Now, more and more, with all these great musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and Bela Fleck integrating different styles and playing them really well together, I don't think there are any boundaries for what you can do."

The track "Starmaker Machinery" is an original dedicated to the jazz-fusion guitarist John McLaughlin. Tolling also performs a Thelonious Monk tune, as well as a version of a Danish folk song called "I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro."

Discovering Jazz

Tolling, now 29, grew up in Denmark and studied classical music as a child. Then, as a teenager, he discovered Miles Davis.

"And I started listening to it, and I couldn't put it down, I was so drawn to it," Tolling says. "It was something about the intimacy and space. And I needed to find a way to play that on my instrument, which is the violin."

Tolling started by imitating horn solos. As he got into it, he discovered a long tradition of jazz musicians playing the violin.

But still, he says, jazz is not a easy business to break into if you show up with a fiddle.

"When you go to a jam session, people look kind of funny at you, that you are going to be playing violin on a jazz jam session," Tolling says. "So there is a bit of stigma with the strings, and violin in particular, but you've just got to do it. And when people know you, it becomes a little bit of a novelty, too, which is fun."

Tolling says jazz crowds love his cover of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." After all, he says, everyone knows Led Zeppelin: It's universal music. And that's the kind of music he wants to celebrate.



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