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Ben Powell: In The Footsteps Of Jazz Fiddle Royalty
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Ben Powell: In The Footsteps Of Jazz Fiddle Royalty

Music Interviews


Ben Powell is a 25-year-old jazz violinist from England who's been getting some pretty high praise. He's been compared to one of the most acclaimed jazz violinists of all time, Stephane Grappelli. Grappelli's collaborations with the guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930s and '40s had influenced countless musicians. From member station WBUR, Andrea Shea has this profile of the young Boston-based violinist and his new tribute to Grappelli.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Ben Powell has been playing the violin a long time, a very long time.

BEN POWELL: Really, in the womb, my mother was teaching, and I started playing when I was 2. But I didn't start reading music until I was about 9 or 10, so it was eight years of aural dictation, through the Suzuki method.

SHEA: Powell's mom was a classical violinist and teacher, and the young student eventually learned jazz the same way: by listening to recordings in his bedroom as a teenager.

POWELL: I would practice a lot playing classical music, and then I would put on some Grappelli and put the headphones on, and I'd just swing with him for as long as I could.


POWELL: Whole records at a time, you know, I wouldn't know the chords, I wouldn't know the tunes, but I'd just slowly pick up his licks, and it was more getting myself inside that kind of expression.


SHEA: Stephane Grappelli is Powell's hero. He's pretty much obsessed with him, and that's why the young musician dedicated his latest album to Grappelli.


SHEA: Powell is preparing to tour in support of his new CD, rehearsing with pianist Tim Ray.


SHEA: The two of them smile and bounce, exchanging quick glances in Ray's living room.


TIM RAY: I couldn't remember. They're really fast.


RAY: I'll let you take that one.

SHEA: The pianist teaches at Berklee College of Music and has played with a lot of jazz musicians over his career but not many jazz violinists.

RAY: Jazz violin is not a giant genre compared to, say, saxophone or piano or bass. I mean, obviously, there's lots of history, and most of the jazz musicians I play with tend to play the more traditional jazz instruments.

SHEA: And Ray thinks that's why critics often compare Powell to Grappelli, which isn't to say the 50-year-old is not impressed with a musician half his age.

RAY: I think most listeners have the same reaction the first thing they think when they hear Ben is like, wow, this guy can really play the fiddle.


SHEA: But improvising over chord changes by ear is a lot different from playing a string quartet reading sheet music.

KEITH LOCKHART: If you spend too many years trying to play things exactly as they're written, it's very hard to let go of the printed page.

SHEA: Keith Lockhart, a classically trained pianist and conductor with the Boston Pops, helped Powell make the leap from classical to jazz. The two met when the violinist was 18 and a member of the National Youth Orchestra in England, where Lockhart was guest conductor. One day, Powell made a confession: He told the maestro he really wanted to play jazz.

LOCKHART: In this sort of position, you come across hundreds of aspiring musicians, thousands of aspiring musicians, and often, they'll all want something from you, but Ben was, number one, so unassuming and, number two, so terribly talented.

SHEA: So the conductor took this demo recording back to Boston.


SHEA: Lockhart submitted it to the jazz string program at Berklee. A few months later, Powell was accepted. He's been in Boston ever since, except for spending the first half of this year in Paris, Stephane Grappelli's hometown.

POWELL: I was actually visiting Stephane's apartment regularly. I befriended his partner who still owns the very place that he lived in and learning about what he liked to do at home. And, you know, he really didn't practice the violin that much. He loved playing the piano more than anything. It was just wonderful.

SHEA: Powell never got to meet his hero. Grappelli died in 1997 when the younger violinist was just 11. But if he did get the chance...

POWELL: I don't know what I'd ask him. I'd probably just want to sit and enjoy a drink on the Seine or something, and we could talk about anything he wanted or I wanted. I think that's probably the experience I would wish for.

SHEA: Because for Ben Powell, Stephane Grappelli said everything about music with his violin. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.


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