When Aaron Weinstein, a brilliant, now 28-year-old master of the hot jazz fiddle, was only 13, his life was turned around forever when he first heard a recording by the late Joe Venuti, the pioneering jazz violinist celebrated in the 1920s and '30s for his searing solos and maddening, madcap pranks.
What Weinstein heard on the classic jazz recording that he just so happened to fish-out of his parents extensive record collection that day was a swinging sound and style totally unlike anything the teenage, Chicago suburbanite had ever heard before, even though he had already been playing a violin that his music-loving parents bought him when he was much younger.
"It was the first time I heard jazz, certainly the first time I heard jazz played on a violin. After hearing Venuti play jazz and play it the way he did at that time, I was mesmerized and couldn't really understand why anyone would want to do anything other than play jazz on that instrument," Weinstein says by phone from his New York City apartment..
Since that boyhood epiphany, Weinstein, who recorded his first album at 19, has established himself as a consummate hot jazz violinist who, while only 16 or so, was already performing with such luminaries as Les Paul and the powerful Pizzarelli jazz dynasty, John, the son, and Bucky Pizzarelli, the father.
A premier paladin of hot jazz, Weinstein's "have violin will travel" motto has taken him from England, Switzerland and France to Iceland and Israel, from prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Wolf Trap to such blue-chip, Big Apple jazz havens as The Blue Note, Birdland and the Iridium.
Weinstein, who has been hailed in The Wall Street Journal by jazz critic Nat Hentoff as the avatar of "the rebirth of the hot jazz violin," brings all of his now celebrated string heat and lyrical illumination to Hartford as he performs Friday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m. in the ongoing jazz and cabaret series at Japanalia Eiko. He'll be accompanied by the young, New York pianist, Matt Baker, a frequent collaborator.
Part of what has added to Weinstein's mystique and glowing image as a champion of hot jazz and The Great American Songbook, is that he was largely self-taught, learning initially by listening to and transcribing recordings. Remarkably, the virtuoso fiddler never received a formal lesson in classical violin technique until he attended Boston's Berklee College of Music on a four-year scholarship.
Besides his musical gifts that have earned him a reputation as one of the premier jazz violinists of his generation, Weinstein early on displayed an endearing bit of youthful chutzpah when, at only 15, he recorded a few songs on a demo CD, which he sent out to big name jazz players, including John Pizzarelli, the celebrated singer and guitarist.
Although it was a long shot, the teenage phenom's bold outreach with the sampler of his playing led to collaborations with the famous Pizzarellis when he was only in his teens. The peerless Pizzarellis even appeared on Weinstein's acclaimed, 2005 debut disc, "A Handful of Stars," a high-class endorsement to die for.
The violin maestro's most recent release, "Lucky Day," which unites him with the great traditional cornetist Warren Vache, is yet another interpretive gem of Great American Songbook material, including fresh, nurturing takes on such evergreens as Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" and Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg's "It's Only a Paper Moon."
Besides his fiery fiddling, Weinstein's engaging stage presence has also seized attention for both his amusing wit and signature sartorial look. Complementing his round-rimmed glasses, Weinstein's working apparel is a conservative suit and, most importantly, a flamboyant bow-tie, which, yes, he does tie himself.
Recently, Weinstein chatted by phone with The Courant about his love for jazz and The Great American Songbook, ranging in tone from profoundly serious to quite tongue-in-cheek, perhaps a reflection of his reverence for the humor of Jack Benny and Woody Allen.
Q: Why did you get hooked on jazz and the violin?
A: Why would anyone in their right mind not get hooked? Had I known how hard it was, however, I probably wouldn't have started in jazz. I guess that could also be said for the violin —- even more so for the violin.
Had but I known how big my chiropractic bill would be over the course of my violin playing. It's like a mean joke that someone had to make the violin. You have to put all of your appendages in unnatural positions for an extended amount of time.
Q: Why hot jazz and not some other genre?
A: I was attracted to hot jazz because that was what Venuti was playing on that record. At first I said, 'Oh, my God! Who is this person!' I immediately checked out his catalog, which started basically at the beginning of jazz, shortly after the music was created in the early '20s. So that's really what I first gravitated toward, and that's what I still love, that and what they call The Great American Songbook.
Q: What accounts for the Songbook's long lasting appeal in the pop world where the ephemeral rules?
A: I think the answer is the same as why we're still reading 'The Grapes of Wrath,' or why we're still looking at a Norman Rockwell painting. Things that are of quality will always be of quality. A great painting is always going to be great. And great music is always going to be great.
These songs, in my opinion, were so well-crafted. Not to say that they are the very best thing, because I don't think anything can be the very best thing. But I don't think there is anything better.