By Olivia Popp
Mads Tolling & The Mads Men: “Playing the 60s” came to the sizable Bing Concert Hall Studio just a few days ago. The jazz band played under the twinkling of colored lights in the blackbox style theater, which was transformed into a sort of nightclub setting. Originally from Denmark, band leader and two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist Mads Tolling is quite the impressive musician — educated at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Tolling is charismatic, amusing and incredibly talented on the violin. While jazz violin may be tough to imagine, Tolling’s playing along with the arrangements make it the most natural thing in the world. As an instrument in a similar register to alto and soprano singers, the violin is a reasonable substitute for a singer in a jazz performance, but a violin can often serve to be even more versatile than a vocalist, especially when dealing with high-speed and high-intensity melodies. Tolling’s performance very quickly became the latter scenario when the arrangements were revealed to not only be replicas of traditional melodic lines within songs but also renditions with unique improvised and pre-arranged sections. With the rich tones of the violin accompanied by the musical stylings of Josh Thurston-Milgram (double bass), Eric Garland (drums) and Colin Hogan (piano), the night was made sweet by an unconventional jazz combo that both entertained and defied expectations.
As a violinist myself, alternative genres and playing styles have always excited me. The somewhat-viral-hit “Subway Violinists – I Knew You Were Trouble,” played by Rhett Price and Josh Knowles — also both Berklee College of Music alums — first introduced me to non-traditional covers and styles, and I’ve been in love ever since. (As a side note, I would highly recommend their covers published under the channel Rhett Josh — they’re super fun and range from Britney Spear’s “Toxic” to Katy Perry’s “ET.”) Adding onto this unique four-piece band was that the group playing a variety of 60s-inspired songs including arrangements of the “Mission Impossible” and “The Flintstones” themes, “Georgia on My Mind” and Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” allowing individuals of all ages to enjoy the music. Even the songs that I wasn’t familiar with became alluring, and Tolling’s use of an electric effect pedal along with his violin allowed even more flexibility in how the violin was used as a jazz instrument.
For those familiar with the band’s composition, each instrumentalist had his individual moment to show true talent: Tolling playing a section of immensely difficult string crossings that plague even the most talented of violinists, Thurston-Milgram jumping into the highest registers of the bass, Garland keeping up incredible rhythms on the various pieces of his drum set and Hogan creating vast landscapes of improvised piano on the spot. Near the end, Tolling jumped on the piano with Hogan by emulating an old piano comedy routine reminiscent of Victor Borge’s classic “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” set, and Hogan juggled three, four and then five balls while Tolling played. Each of the instrumentalists also had a chance to show off during improvised sections, an essential part to many pieces of jazz repertoire. Arrangements of songs that you thought you knew quickly became something new — “Mission Impossible” in an 11/9 time signature, a version of “All Along the Watchtower” in a Cuban timba style with a jazz violin riff — carrying an air of invention throughout the entire concert.
Bay Area jazz singer Kenny Washington also brought a more traditional classic silky-smooth sound to Mads Tolling & The Mads Men during certain songs. Washington’s velvety voice brought me back to recordings of 1920s jazz singers in nightclubs — unmistakably powerful and virtuosic. Washington and Tolling even created a sort of “dueling musicians” feel in the end song — an arrangement of a Thelonius Monk tune — when Tolling began to play complex improvised melodies on the violin and Washington mimicked them using scat singing and vice versa. While Washington did add an enjoyable vocal aspect to the performance, Tolling’s group most likely could have carried all the way through the hour-and-a-half performance itself, maybe with only a song or two with Washington rather than four or five.
Mads Tolling & The Mads Men released their first album, “Playing the 60s,” this year. (I would encourage listening to the band’s arrangement of “Mission Impossible” — musicians, listen for that tough 11/9 time signature.) The group’s performances (and eponymous name of their album) of various tunes from the album are among the most innovative I have seen of instrumental music in a while, bringing a surprising sort of nostalgia for an era that I missed by a long shot. Who knows — maybe I’ll take up jazz violin some day.
Mads Tolling & The Mads Men performed their “Playing the 60s” performance on October 6 and 7.
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.