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Fiddler explores a jazzy new genre.

Byline: Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

Mark O'Connor never envisioned himself playing in a jazz trio, but that's one of many places you'll find the busy violinist these days.

His group, the Hot Swing Trio, features bass player Jon Burr and guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola. Together, they play music inspired by the Hot Club of France, the 1930s quartet that included violinist Stephane Grappelli and guitarist Django Reinhardt.

"It's been so much fun and rewarding," O'Connor said, speaking by phone from Grand Rapids, Mich., where he was performing with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

"I really did go into this (project) approaching it as something I would do for a limited time on the side. ... By having this group, it really has enabled me to become a jazz artist as well as the other things I do."

Initially intended as a one-night stand, the Hot Swing Trio played its first gig in 1997 to honor Grappelli, who recently had passed away. But the group stuck together.

Hot on the heels of its second album, "In Full Swing," the group comes to the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts on Sunday for a performance that's part of the Oregon Festival of American Music's Now Hear This series.

"Right from the very beginning, it never really felt like we were totally trying to cop what Stephane and Django were doing," O'Connor said, explaining the collaborative sparks that flew during that first show. "We were just doing what we could.

`It turned out what we could do was something that not only had a unique voice, it was the kind of voice that audiences seemed to really embrace."

One busy guy

A prolific violinist without musical boundaries, O'Connor, 41, has played on more than 500 country and bluegrass albums as a Nashville session player. He's performed with the rock band the Dixie Dregs, recorded Appalachian music with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and played in a classical quartet. And he has written concertos for symphony orch- estras.

As The New York Times put it, "If he felt moved to put together a big band that played Bulgarian folk music with a dash of hip-hop, he could probably get it booked into most concert halls in North America with no questions asked."

O'Connor's musical range mirrors that of Grappelli, one of his main mentors. Grappelli explored a different but equally wide-ranging mix of musical genres, including jazz, classical, tango, Gypsy and French cafe music.

While growing up in Seattle, O'Connor worshipped Grap- pelli, who later hired the young musician to be in his band.

O'Connor's other mentor, Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, shared one thing in common with Grappelli: a desire to help a young player branch out.

"Both my teachers always challenged me to be different than them," O'Connor said. "They never wanted me to be their clone. ...

`They taught me to be my own free spirit, and they led by example because they played very differently from whomever they learned from."

As the leader of the Hot Swing Trio, O'Connor said he feels a responsibility to ensure that his band is not just giving a cursory nod to the past. While the trio's first album, "Hot Swing!" served as an introduction to the group, the newest release shows the band branching off in new directions.

One track, "Stephane and Django," might appear to be pure nostalgia. But the lively piece, which hops around quite a bit, is inspired by the spirit and not the letter of the Hot Club of France.

The tune, O'Connor said, is not something Grappelli and Reinhardt ever would have come up with on their own.

There are other surprises on the CD, such as the appearance of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and jazz vocalist Jane Monheit on several tracks. The special guests lend the record some contemporary sparkle, but O'Connor's fellow trio members are no slouches either.

In fact, O'Connor said, he altered his usual playing style in order to accommodate his powerful rhythm section.

"Most of the time, when I've played acoustically in rhythmic type of music, oddly enough it was my violin that a lot of people relied on to really create the groove of the music. ... I kind of just drug others along with me and pushed the music where I wanted to go.

"With Frank and Jon, they're so powerful, I don't have to worry about that. I give like a wink and a nod and we're gonna go wherever we want."

A talented bunch

O'Connor had no shortage of praise for bassist Burr, who plays, he said, in a style that is both driving and lyrical. Plus, it doesn't hurt that he toured with Grappelli for a decade.

Still, he reserved his kindest words for guitarist Vignola, whom he called a "literal virtuoso." It was Vignola's abilities (and O'Connor's repetitive stress injury) that prompted O'Connor to give up his secondary instrument, the guitar, at about the time the Hot Swing Trio started playing together.

"Frank is simply the best acoustic guitarist I've ever heard or seen or played with, just flat out," O'Connor said. "He's beyond amazing. ...

`Even Django Reinhardt, who is probably the greatest virtuoso in history on the acoustic guitar, didn't have the jazz knowledge like Frank ... the real deep jazz knowledge."

Although O'Connor studied jazz early on and played swing in Grappelli's band, he veered away from it partly because he saw how good Grappelli was. Now that he's fallen back into it again, he seems determined to keep pushing the music into new jazz dimensions.

O'Connor pointed to two new songs that have yet to be recorded, a rag and a blues number, as evidence of that progression. And he flashed back to the point where the idea for the group originated: the death of Stephane Grappelli.

"I had this - it was a feeling of - almost like my heart being gouged out when he passed away," O'Connor recalled. "Not as much that I wouldn't see him again; he was old and feeble and it was just a matter of time. It was his legacy and I was concerned about it. ...

`I thought, well, maybe I can add a component of this into my career, just out of respect for the old man. And that's really simply how it started."

Lewis Taylor can be reached at 338-2512 or


Mark O'Connor's

Hot Swing Trio

What: Jazz and hot swing

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: The John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts, 285 E. Broadway

How much: $15 to $40

GuardLine: To hear music by Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio, call the GuardLine at 485-2000 from a touch-tone phone and request category 7664


The Hot Swing Trio, featuring bassist Jon Burr (from left), violinist Mark O'Connor and guitarist Frank Vignola, formed in 1997 as a one-shot tribute to the Hot Club of France. Swing: Audiences have embraced trio Continued from Page 14
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Title Annotation:Mark O'Connor and pals should serve up a hot time at the Shedd; Entertainment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 30, 2003
Previous Article:Dining Out Briefly.
Next Article:Music Briefly.

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