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.
And that's why we're still listening to it and enjoying it and playing it because it's such great material.
Q: Who were your early influences? Were they all violinists?
A: Early on it was violin players, at least in the beginning because I was dealing with a new music and with a difficult instrument. So, at first I was influenced by people like Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, Stuff Smith and Svend Asmussen — what I see as kind of the Big Four of the great early pioneers of jazz violin.
Q: What about singers and other instrumentalists?
A: Well, those four violinists were playing with other great players of their time. So I was introduced to people like Zoot Sims and Lester Young and Django Reinhardt.
What's so wonderful about jazz is that it's not instrument-specific. It's basically a musical language. And it's a language that can be articulated on any instrument. So for that reason, I can and have learned as much if not more from saxophone players and trumpet players and guitar players than I have from violinists because it's not about the instrument. It's about the music. It's more about the players than the instrument.
Q: It sounds like you're saying that finding your own voice is the important thing, rather than merely what instrument you express yourself on?
A: Oh, yes, that's the end goal. The whole idea is to play exactly what is in your head at the moment that it pops into your head, which is a lifelong pursuit. That's really what I'm trying for and why I have always gravitated towards the more melodic players.
Q: Did your classical training, which didn't come until you were already in college, help or harm you as a hot jazz improviser?
A: It really opened up a whole other world to me to sit down with someone who has spent their life thinking about violin technique, and have them tell me what I'm doing wrong and why.
Sure, it helped. But I was a very stubborn student, which, I guess, might be expected because up until that point there were things that were working for me. So when the teacher would say, 'Aaron, you can't hold your bow that way,' I would say, 'Why not? Of course, I can.'
I had a wonderful teacher who'd then say, 'Well, you're right. You can hold your bow that way, but then you won't be able to do these 17 other things.' And she was absolutely right.
I took what I needed, what I wanted. I certainly could spend years and years learning about the violin. It's an endless study, but that training did open up my eyes.
Q: You sent a demo CD to John Pizzarelli who, perhaps a bit astonishingly, gave you a call back. What was that experience like?
A: John called me and was wildly encouraging. It happened in the evening, and earlier that day I had my wisdom teeth removed. So this was my first and last day on Vicodin, and I couldn't even put a coherent sentence together on the phone. I must have sounded like an insane person, but he was so encouraging, certainly more-than the music he heard warranted. But it meant so much to me.
Q: Where does your sense of humor come from?
A: I don't know. I can't really tell a joke well.
Q: Is your humorous patter between tunes a way to connect with the audience? And is it at all important to keep an audience entertained that way?
A: Most of the people who come to a concert want to have a good time. They want to be entertained. They want to leave feeling like they've had a nice time sitting in the seats. Any way that can be accomplished is fair game.
You can't just play the violin all night. You can, but it certainly alienates a lot people. And that's not my goal. Maybe if I do something in between songs to make them comfortable and enjoy themselves, they might be more open to listening to the music. Or maybe not.
Maybe they'll just kind of glaze over until the song ends. I don't know.
Q: There is the deadly serious school of jazz performance rooted in virtually ignoring the audience. What do you think of that?
A: I'm not a big subscriber of that. There are, after all, people sitting in front of you. Why are we going to pretend the situation is anything other than that? I don't understand.
Sometimes I see performers and during half of the songs, they're looking up at a balcony that doesn't exist. And I'm thinking who are they looking at? Are they counting the lights? I don't know.
Q: What's the story with your sartorial signatures of bow-tie and suit? You've even described yourself as a 'bow-tie activist.'
A: Well, 'bow-tie activist' is a little tongue-in-cheek. Just want to make sure you don't think I'm a complete crazy. The truth of the matter is that I do wear a bow-tie most days, even when I have nowhere to go. You have to put clothes on every day, even if you don't leave the house.
Violinist Aaron Weinstein presents "Have Strings Will Swing!," a program of hot jazz and American Songbook classics, on Friday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m. at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney St., Hartford. Tickets: $48 stage-side table seating; $28 general row seating; BYOB encouraged. Information: 860-232-4677.