CD review

Florian Willeitner, Georg Breinschmid, Igmar Jenner – ‘First Strings on Mars’

Florian Willeitner, Georg Breinschmid, Igmar Jenner – First Strings on Mars
(ACT Records ACT 9921-2. Review by Julian Maynard-Smith)

Ask any jazz aficionado to reel off the names of pianists, bassists, drummers, guitarists, saxophonists or trumpeters and they’ll give you plenty – but jazz violinists? Stéphane Grappelli obviously, Jean-Luc Ponty almost certainly, Regina Carter and Didier Lockwood very likely, Nigel Kennedy perhaps (as most consider him a classical violinist), Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith for those familiar with the Swing era and, er, does Ornette Coleman count? Violinist Florian Willeitner is surely right in saying that, ‘The full potential of the violin, with its unique versatility and its kaleidoscopic possibilities of timbre and texture, is rarely to be heard in conventional jazz settings.’

And ‘kaleidoscopic possibilities’ are certainly what we get from this trio comprising Florian Willeitner with double bassist Georg Breinschmid and fellow violinist Igmar Jenner, arranged left-middle-right channel on the recording. Even if the sleeve notes didn’t tell us this, we’d probably guess from the following evidence: lead violin is conventionally to the audience’s left; whoever starts a piece (as the left-channel violinist often does) is likely the person who wrote it; and while Willeitner and Breinschmid wrote four originals apiece Jenner wrote none, the two further tracks being Stephen Foster’s Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and Sting’s Fragile.

Willeitner certainly has the pedigree to be a lead violinist, having studied with the renowned violinist Benjamin Schmid and written a violin concerto that premiered in the Vienna Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic. But Jenner has solid credentials as well, having founded the string orchestra String Syndicate and been a long-term member of radio.string.quartet, and his virtuosity means he easily holds his ground.

Centring Breinschmid between the violins was a smart idea, the bass providing plenty of ballast when the violins take wing. He’s such a forceful player he sometimes doesn’t so much pluck the strings as twang them, as if drawing a longbow to sling his notes towards those soaring violins. It’s a style of playing that would probably have raised eyebrows in the Vienna Philharmonic, so it’s little wonder he gave up his permanent seat with them to seek ‘a carefree approach to music’.

First Stings on Mars

First Strings on Mars. Photo credit Julia Wesely

We get an intimation of that carefree – even boisterous – approach even before listening, with the album’s group photo (above) showing all three players looking skywards, Willeitner and Jenner wearing steampunk goggles and clamping their violins to their ears like outsized mobile phones. The auditory playfulness works brilliantly on many numbers, such as the opening track Novemberlicht that hints at everything from Celtic folk to chamber music to jazz, with a solo from Willeitner that sounds like something an electric guitarist might play; Fragile shimmers with lovely pizzicato, harmonisation, and sharing of the tune between bass and violin; Brazil Imported starts with a fantastic solo from Willeitner like a cadenza from a concerto, followed by Breinschmid’s high-energy bass (complete with percussive slapping of the bass’s body) and strumming as if the violins were guitars; and the catchy Searching is a showcase for Breinschmid in which driving riffs bookend a classical sounding midsection preceded by a springy bass solo full of ringing harmonics.

The playfulness is less successful when it strays into yodelling and screaming on Hochkar; and while The Green Wind is a pretty ballad with mandolin that hints at indie folk, Willeitner’s vocal talents are modest. Also, it was odd to place the only live track (The Swindler) seventh out of ten; the music itself is great fun, a playful reinterpretation of Alpine folk music with energetic bass and fantastic sparring and dissonance between the violins, but the audience applause sits awkwardly in the middle of what’s otherwise a studio recording. The track would surely have worked better as the album’s finale.

Such quibbles aside, this is an enjoyable album that has encouraged me to explore other contemporary violinists pushing the instrument’s possibilities, such as the Bartolomey/Bittmann duo, radio.string.quartet, and Adam Bałdych (all on the ACT label); and also Mark Feldman, whose latest album Sounding Point recently received an enthusiastic review HERE on LJN – amply fulfilling Willeitner’s wish to convince us of those ‘kaleidoscopic possibilities’ of the violin.

First Strings on Mars is released on ACT on 26 February 2021

LINKS : First String on Mars on the ACT website
ACT label Bandcamp page

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