This music is, in a way, over two decades in the making. When violinist James Sanders returned home to Chicago in 1989 after earning a performance degree at Yale, he thought of himself as a classical musician. But a chance encounter with jazz violin legend Johnny Frigo changed all that. Frigo heard the young man busking on the street and invited him to his weekly club gig. He was soon sitting in between Frigo’s sets and discovering the pleasures of jazz improvisation. A seed was planted.
Over the next 22 years Sanders honed his chops as both a leader and collaborator in various contexts: Latin jazz, free improvisation, Gypsy swing, third stream and more, all the while holding down a chair in an orchestra. He also learned that Chicago was home to a storied jazz violin tradition: Besides Frigo, Eddie South, Darnell Howard and Stuff Smith had all spent time here.
In 2012, Sanders decided the time was right to honor that tradition with a straight up jazz recording. No Latin, nothing outside, just pure jazz. He enlisted pianist Kevin O’Connell, a veteran keyboardist who was a member of Clifford Jordan’s quartet in the 1980s and has a long list of credits with Philly Joe Jones, Vernel Fournier, Al Grey, Billy Hart and many more.
They selected nine classics and set about writing fresh arrangements. Ranging from hard bop to post bop and back to the Great American Songbook, they all provide a great platform for Sanders’ incisive yet spirited playing. The rhythm section of O’Connell, bassist Stewart Miller and drummer George Fludas swings hard when called for and provides elegantly restrained support on the ballads. There is almost none of the rep associated with violin. Instead, Sanders takes on the role of a horn player on tunes written with sax or trumpet in mind. The sole exception is Stuff Smith’s Blue Violin. “Without guys like Stuff,” says Sanders, “I never would have taken this journey.”