The first time I saw Mark O’Connor perform live was at a small folk festival in Spokane, Washington in the late 1980s, when he was the solo warm-up act for David Grisman’s group. I had only just begun to hear about the remarkable Nashville session fiddler at that time and I was unprepared for his electrifying performance. It was virtuosic playing of a mind-bogglingly high level. Since that time, I’ve followed his career choices and musical diversions as he explored various genres and venues; O’Connor started out in life with Texas contest fiddling and went on to master country, bluegrass, contemporary chamber music, and now jazz and swing.
Stephane Grappelli, the late great French jazz violinist who played with Django Reinhardt, is one of O’Connor’s earliest and most significant musical influences and so it is no surprise that O’Connor would choose to explore this style of music. You might say it was inevitable. In fact, this recording – Live in New York – is his third venture into jazz violin, which started with Hot Swing! and continued with In Full Swing. Considering O’Connor’s personal history with Grappelli (he toured with and played alongside Grappelli and Grisman in the late 1970s/early 1980s) and his enormous technical abilities, perhaps no one alive at this time is more capable of performing this style of music.
Live in New York consists of a mix of standards by Gershwin, Waller, and Ellington arranged by O’Connor and original compositions by O’Connor. His own numbers, like “Anniversary,” sometimes take a detour from typical Grappelli-style numbers and delve into a more challenging and contemporary palette. The recording is crystal clear and luminous. If it weren’t for the applause that comes in at the end of the numbers, I would guess this was a studio recording. The performances from all three musicians are dead-on and perfectly executed. O’Connor’s playing on “Cherokee” is dynamic and irresistible. Frank Vignola, one of the best jazz guitarists around, has a particularly good solo on “Ain’t Misbehavin‚” that delights the ear as much as it astounds the mind. Vignola proves to be more than a match for O’Connor’s pyrotechnics. Jon Burr adds an understated, but solid, foundation to the trio and also contributes a deep understanding of this music, since he spent twelve years as member of Grappelli’s band. Burr’s solo turn on “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is dazzling in its complexities and nuances.
Still, sometimes this recording sounds more like a recreation or channeling of Stephane Grappelli and his time than it seems like a product of our own present world, and even at that, it is a flawed recreation. Technically, O’Connor is probably the better player, but Grappelli was always more about emotions and spirit, while O’Connor is more of an intellectual musician; sometimes his solos seem to be more concerned with crowding in as many notes as possible, rather than developing an engaging melodic line. It’s only in numbers like “Fiddler Going Home” and “Gypsy Fantastic” that O’Connor lowers enough shields to reveal his emotional side. So, even though O’Connor’s playing is breathtakingly acrobatic and facile, as it always is, it resides too much in his head and not enough in his heart, thus missing out on the soaring spirit that was the original inspiration for this music.
– Hermon Joyner