New String Star BEN POWELL Emerges with “New Street”, Including a Tribute to Stéphane Grappelli with Gary Burton and Julian Lage
“Following in the footsteps of the great Stephane Grappelli, Ben Powell has developed a very personal inspired voice on the violin. His ideas flow freely with expression in every kind of music he’s exploring. Bravo.” — Joe Lovano
Stéphane Grappelli isn’t on hand to pass the jazz violin torch to Ben Powell himself, but Gary Burton makes a fine stand-in for the late Hot Club pioneer. Among the numerous highlights on New Street, an album that showcases the British-born violinist’s manifold musical gifts, there’s the world premiere of “Gary,” a tune that Grappelli composed for Burton decades ago but that the vibes legend never recorded. A famously astute talent scout, Burton joins Powell on the eponymous track, along with the brilliant guitarist Julian Lage.
New Street, a self-produced session slated for release on May 15, reflects the stylistically diverse sensibility of a musician who draws deeply from several distinct musical worlds. A classical prodigy who became obsessed with jazz as a young teenager, Powell plays swing with virtuosity and brio, while exploring various modern jazz currents with equal fluency.
“I have always wanted to do a tribute to Stéphane in a special way,” says Powell. “I knew I wanted to dedicate some tracks on the CD to doing this, so with Gary and Julian's contribution this has been a very special tribute indeed.”
The album opens with Powell’s ballad “Judith,” a warm, lovingly rendered tune that introduces his working quartet with pianist Tadataka Unno, bassist Aaron Darrell and drummer Devin Drobka (note the felicitous Bach reference in the final bars). He then kicks into high gear with the title track “New Street,” a steeplechase with alternating time signatures and intricate post-bop harmonies.
As the title of “Monk 4 Strings” suggests, Powell evokes Thelonious’ artful use of dissonance and cagey humor, layering the violin parts to create thicker textures. For sheer instrumental thrills, it’s hard to beat Powell tearing through “What Is This Thing Called Love” with Gypsy guitarist Adrien Moignard, the most heralded young guitarist on the World Gypsy jazz scene. “They’re not at all stuck in the past,” Powell says. “All of them draw on so many contemporary influences to keep the music evolving. The projection of sound, and the tone quality they can create from their acoustic guitars is astonishing. I enjoy the parallels between that and good violin playing.” Powell recently spent six months in Paris, performing widely with the Gypsy musicians and forging close friendships, Moignard being one of them.
Gracefully displaying the ease with which he moves between jazz and classical realms, Powell follows with his quartet arrangement of “Sea Shell,” a classical piece for violin and piano written in the early 1900’s. With his violin soaring over the rich harmonies, it’s easy to forget that the piece is entirely notated. “The violin's vast classical repertoire gives me the ability to explore these two idioms side by side. Being a classically trained violinist who plays jazz, I love blending these spheres and hope to encourage more violinists to do the same.”
Powell makes a compelling case for the compatibility of violin and voice on “La Vie En Rose,” an arrangement inspired by Wynton Marsalis featuring lissome Boston singer Linda Calise. “The violin is widely thought of as the closest sound to the human voice. I don’t often hear jazz violin and voice together, so I wanted to celebrate this combination.”
The album’s centerpiece however is “Gary,” a tune that Grappelli wrote for Burton after their classic 1969 Atlantic album “Paris Encounter.” Grappelli sent the tune to Burton, who framed and hung it in his Berklee office. Introduced to Burton by fellow Berklee student Julian Lage, Powell mentioned that he was interested in recording a tribute to Grappelli. “Gary said, ‘It’s funny you should mention this, because Stéphane wrote a tune for me,’” Powell says. “But it had faded over the years. Fortunately Grappelli recorded it, and I actually had a cassette of the album that I’d been listening to for years without knowing the tune’s name or that it was written for Gary.”
Arranged as a waltz, Powell recorded “Gary” as an intimate chamber jazz piece beautifully blending the sounds of this unique instrumentation. The trio contributes another ravishing performance on “La Chanson Des Rues,” a popular French melody that Grappelli often played, and concludes the album with Powell’s arrangement of “Piccadilly Stomp,” a piece Grappelli wrote on his first visit to London before the Second World War. “I thought it would be quite fun because of the British angle,” Powell says. “And it worked well with the trio, incorporating modern lines in the arrangement, yet retaining that Hot Club feel.”
Born and raised in Cheltenham, a small but cosmopolitan city in southwest England, Powell grew up surrounded by classical music. His mother is a Suzuki violin teacher and his father is a classical cellist.
When he discovered Grappelli in his early teens, Powell started aurally dictating jazz onto the violin and joined various ensembles to share his love of jazz with others. At the same time, he continued to pursue his classical studies intensively.
During his final three years of high school, Powell was selected to perform with the UK’s highly competitive National Youth Orchestra. In his senior year, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart was serving as guest conductor with the Orchestra when he over heard Powell improvising. Mr. Lockhart suggested Berklee College of Music to Powell as a place of study, and upon his return to Boston connected Berklee with his discovery. Within a year Powell was on his way to Berklee with a scholarship.
Fascinated by arranging and composing, Powell majored in jazz composition taking every class he could while honing his own string-centric approach to writing. Regularly performing with a multitude of student groups, he was a frequent member of student ensembles led by saxophonist Joe Lovano, and was awarded ‘The Most Valuable String Player Award’ during his first year at the College.
Amazingly, he kept one foot firmly planted in the classical world, performing regularly with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra under Benjamin Zander. It wasn’t unusual for him to spend an afternoon playing in Lovano’s ensemble and an evening rehearsing Brahms or Mahler with the Boston Phil. While still at Berklee he started performing with bassist Aaron Darrell and drummer Devin Drobka, the rhythm section tandem on his first album. He met the Japanese-born pianist Tadataka Unno at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program in Washington DC. Brought to the US by Hank Jones, Unno “plays much like the older cats, with that touch, control and effortless mastery of the instrument,” Powell says.
“While the album is predominantly jazz orientated stylistically, I’ve tried to access that world where jazz and classical music merge sonically, mostly through the violin sound. I find this approach suits me personally, as it is from the classical world that I emerged playing jazz, always drawing on my classical technique and references for sound. I really wanted this album to celebrate the violin as I hear its voice and spirit pertain to jazz.”
This celebration is clearly evident on New Street, an album that will leave him with no need for further jazz introductions.