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Mads Tolling celebrates Jean-Luc Ponty at Healdsburg Jazz Festival

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The Mads Tolling Quartet is among the most anticipated acts to set to perform at the 16th annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which gets under way Friday.
The Grammy-winning violinist is among Northern California’s most gifted musicians and backed by Dave McNab (guitar), Sam Bevan (bass) and Eric Garland (drums) will perform his tribute to pioneering jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on June 4 at Spoonbar in Healdsburg. The festival website has this to say about concert.

Jazz fusion tends to get a bad rap. But, as Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. So, get ready to meet some good fusion, courtesy of the Mads Tolling Quartet. Born and raised in Denmark, Tolling came to the U.S. at age 20 to attend the Berklee College of Music, where his star rose quickly. While there, he was snapped up by fusion bass legend Stanley Clarke and later joined the Bay Area’s magnificent Turtle Island String Quartet, with whom he won two Grammy awards for Classical Crossover albums. When it comes to combining jazz and classical sensibilities on violin, Tolling’s main model is indubitably the great French artist Jean-Luc Ponty, to whom he paid tribute on his recent album “Celebrating Jean-Luc Ponty: Live at Yoshi’s.”

I had the opportunity to interview Tolling a few years back regarding the Ponty project.

Question: Let's start with the basics. When did you first encounter Ponty's music and what impact did it initially have on you?
Tolling: I came across his music first by listening to the CD “Civilized Evil.” The first track on there, “Demagomania,” is very electronic and through composed, which I thought was interesting, but at some point the track goes into a long violin solo. I was blown away by Ponty’s jazz vocabulary and feel and sound on the instrument. His playing embodied everything I like in, say, a great saxophone or trumpet solo and then adding the special sounds and sensibilities of the violin to that completely put it over the top for me.
Then again, who wouldn’t into be into names like “Civilized Evil” and “Demagomania” when you are 15 years old? Ultimately, the substance of Ponty’s playing pulled me in.
In 2001, Jean-Luc Ponty visited my school, Berklee College of Music, to give a master class. I remember going up on stage and playing a piece for him. We ended up jamming on “Armando’s Rumba.” One year later, Ponty sent me an e-mail saying that he had recommended me to bassist Stanley Clarke and that he hoped I didn’t mind. I really didn’t mind (and) I ended up playing with Stanley for the next eight years. One of the tours we did was actually a double bill with Stanley’s and Jean-Luc’s bands. We would alternate the order of band every night. What an experience.

Question: Characterize, if you will, Ponty's contributions to jazz, both the genre as a whole and the role of violin in the music?
Tolling: Ponty put the violin right alongside great contemporary jazz and fusion improvisers such as Michael Brecker, Jaco Pastorius and John McLaughlin. There are purists who are mainly into Ponty’s early works, playing more acoustic music and standards. In the period before he moved to the U.S, Ponty really showed what he could do playing bebop and standards on arguably the highest level ever for a violinist. His tone and language always sounded modern to me even back in the ‘60s and it bode well for what was to come.
The other fan base of his, which certainly had strength in numbers, were the folks who were into his fusion and electronic music in that music’s heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I think the violin got a lot of attention because of what Ponty could do with it in these new styles combining rock ’n’ roll and jazz. He paved the way for the violin’s use in the music back then for folks like Jerry Goodman and Noel Pointer and to this day he is a constant inspiration for improvising violinists such as me and guys who are into styles from hip hop to rock ’n’ roll.

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