Music We Missed: Mads Tolling's Violin Fusion

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.

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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

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist
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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