Over the last two decades, as violinist and composer Zach Brock worked toward becoming a full-time jazz musician, he knew that he'd have to prove himself as an improviser first and a string player second.
"I wanted to be of the [jazz] scene, where it's happening and where it's alive," Brock says from Lexington, Ky., "where people are creating and leading bands, to be a musician who can come in and deal with everything that's going on, and not to be filigree or a special effect."
Violin players who want to play jazz have to overcome certain psychological barriers ("Can anyone hear me over the drums?") or practical hurdles (how to find a teacher, for example). But they aren't insurmountable.
"Stuff Smith [1909-1967] was playing electric violin in the '30s," says Brock, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. "He figured out a way to do this, to play with horn sections. There have always been those pioneers. I consider Stuff Smith to be a guiding light in that way."
Since 2000, Brock has been a musician to watch, racking up accolades and awards and appearing on terrific albums. He's been tapped for sideman duties by bassist-extraordinaire Stanley Clarke (which, by association, makes Brock a sort of heir apparent to Jean-Luc Ponty); brassman Wycliffe Gordon; and funk band Snarky Puppy.
Brock's own ensemble, the Coffee Achievers, self-produced two CDs and performed at Carnegie Hall in 2005 before disbanding, while Brock's knotty, forward-thinking debut as a bandleader, "The Magic Number," came out in 2011, filled with dense, virtuosic playing and (surprisingly) layered vocal textures.
Most recently, Brock released "Almost Never Was," a quartet session with pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland for the Criss Cross Jazz label. (Oh, and Brock was named Downbeat Magazine's Rising Star Violinist for 2013.)
Naturally, gypsy-jazz pioneer Stephane Grappelli was another huge influence.
"He was an incredible player, and that music was so cool and popular and beautiful," Brock says. "But it's also not American jazz. It's a translation on another continent of things that were happening with a different instrumentation and aesthetic."
Smith, meanwhile, was playing at the Onyx Club in New York with drummers and cutting records with Dizzy Gillespie. "The older I get, the more I see [Smith] as the father of anybody pursuing a more modern, contemporary path in their violin playing in jazz."
Brock's other heroes — there are many — have nothing to do with his chosen instrument: "The Magic Numbers," Brock says, was conceived as a trio recording because of Sonny Rollins.
"He was the musical inspiration and challenge," Brock says. "But then there was also the economic component: man, how can we pile into a Suburu with the gear that we need and hit as many different places as we can?"
From an early age, Brock was mixing genres, playing folk music with his parents and classical with the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra. Brock studied classical performance at Northwestern University in Chicago until a hit-and-run accident sidelined him for three years.
While recovering, Brock continued to study and perform around Chicago, where he increasingly gravitated toward jazz.
"I wanted to be in a place that played a role in the history of jazz," he says of his time in the Windy City, a scene known for its avant-garde leanings. "I wanted to at least continue an ad hoc education, to go to concerts, maybe to go up to the piano player or guitar player and see if I could slip them $60 for a lesson. That's how most of my education was progressing, because there wasn't any jazz violin degree or anything at the time. Honestly, I wouldn't have wanted to do that, because there were things I wanted to learn on my instrument. I knew if I just jumped over to doing jazz exercises on the violin I would miss out. I felt like my classical studies were definitely not over at that point."
Brock moved to New York in 2005. "Specifically, for the type of jazz I wanted to play and the players I wanted to work with, it kept pulling me there," he says. "My professional life was bringing me to New York more often. It was maybe a little demystified for me, which was good."
Playing with Clarke was his first big sideman gig: "It was trial by fire, a connection to the history, all these players who were my idols. I went through that period, trying to make rent, doing more stuff."
Soon, the band-leading bug reared its head. Brock raised funds for a recording session on Kickstarter, which was still in its infancy.
"I'd been putting out my own records simply because it seemed like the most efficient method, "especially in Chicago, where there weren't nearly the same number of independent labels. I was in that first generation of people who thought that it was OK to put out your own record, that it wasn't stigmatized. That's what I had been doing with the Coffee Achievers. I thought, 'Why not go back to what I know'?"
On Saturday, Aug. 30, Brock brings two fellow string players, guitarist Mike Moreno and bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Rudy Royston to the Side Door in Old Lyme, where he'll continue to engage in the ongoing, dynamic conversation of contemporary jazz, on his own terms.
"I've really concentrated on being around other jazz musicians in a jazz world, rather than being in this whole other world of string players. You can exist in improv-string-player world and occasionally cross paths with other players in other genres.
"But I'd rather just live and exist as a jazz musician and not be a guy that is a jazz violin player. I can't really think of it like that. ... I want to know what it's like to be on the bandstand with people like Sonny Rollins."
ZACH BROCK QUARTET plays Saturday, Aug. 30, at the Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $28.50. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com.