Music: Play it again, Mads
Turtle Island violinist comes out of his shell in Mill Valley
"One of the reasons I'm intrigued by the concept of team work is that I'm a huge sports fan," says Mads Tolling, a violinist in the two-time Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet and leader of an eponymous chamber-jazz quartet. "I grew up playing golf, basketball, tennis and soccer—in Denmark, where I grew up, soccer is almost a religion."
That devotion to sports is the root of The Playmaker, an upcoming album that features a newly expanded lineup (with the addition of San Francisco drummer Eric Garland), and guest stars Stanley Clarke on bass, Russell Ferrante (of the Yellowjackets) on piano and Stefon Harris on vibes. Longtime members Mike Abraham (guitar) and George Ban-Weiss (acoustic and electric bass) round out the lineup.
On The Playmaker, Tolling's quartet reprises a cover of Led Zeppelin's percussion-heavy "Black Dog," which was featured as a drumless track on Turtle Island's last album. The CD also includes a cover of the Radiohead song "Just."
"There's a bit more of a jazz-fusion sound on this album," Tolling says. "There are a lot of different styles—a lot of shifting styles—but the idea is for us together to sound like a unit."
The centerpiece is Tolling's original composition "The Playmaker Suite," which underscores the team spirit found both in improvisational jazz and sports.
"As a bandleader, you're trying to feature everybody in the band and to write music that really gets the best out of each band member," he says. "I try to do that not only through our playing, but also through my own writing. I try to facilitate them so that they can shine.
"So there's no one playmaker—we're all playmakers."
When it comes to jazz violin, Tolling is in the big leagues. He started playing violin at age 6, learning through the Suzuki method before switching to conventional classical coaching. "Classical is the cornerstone of my training," he says. "I went through playing Mendelssohn, Vivaldi and Bruch—you know, the works."
He also listened to jazz, gravitating toward the music of legendary jazz violinists Svend Asmussen—a fellow Dane—and Stephane Grappelli.
"I was intrigued by their music but, until I found the right teacher, I wasn't sure how to translate it to my instrument in a way I could understand and apply," he says.
He later had a chance to study under Asmussen, known as the Fiddling Viking, who had played with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
The two Danes developed a close bond.
"He passed the torch to me," Tolling says. "He was quite an influence. My own development as a jazz player was made easier by the fact that we actually have a jazz-violin tradition in Denmark, so it wasn't a completely foreign concept."
His jazz training received a further boost in 2003 when, while still enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Tolling began recording and touring with Clarke.
Professionally, Tolling's big break came when he was offered the position of violist in the Turtle Island Quartet, a pioneering chamber-jazz ensemble based in the Bay Area.
The ensemble won a 2009 Grammy Award for A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane.
But Tolling also enjoys the challenges of a bandleader. "In my own group," he says, "I especially like the way you can create these cool sounding grooves along with these interesting harmonies. I mean, classical music really is founded in European harmonies, so jazz is the best of both worlds. You can fuse it all and make it your own, do something that's a little off.
"I'm very attracted to that."
The Mads Tolling Quartet performs Thursday, Aug. 20, at 8pm, at 142 Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley. $15, $18. 415/383-9600.
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