Mark Feldman is an exceptional jazz violin player and improviser, and his solo here with John Abercrombie (a world class jazz guitarist) is worth listening to multiple times. Mark uses a lot of musical devices here that are important for all jazz players to understand, as well as a number of expressive devices that are unique to the violin.
This composition is called “gimme 5,” a reference to the 5/4 time signature. The tune has extended sections on one tonality, as well as some harmonic changes, and each present their own unique challenges for jazz violin improvisation. When there is a vamp like where this video clip starts, which is a repeated section on one chord, the player has to generate interesting content and tell a story – and cannot fall back on simply playing the changes.
Mark’s Jazz Violin Solo: Things to Notice
Notice that Mark uses really clear ideas, and emphasizes notes that create a strong tonal color against the vamp. An example of this is his use of both major and minor thirds of the key of the moment, emphasizing some major thirds at the beginning of the solo with different 7ths and chromatic tones. The idea here is very clear “tonal” ideas in jazz violin improvisation in addition to rhythmic and melodic ideas. Mark knows the different colors that certain notes will create, and emphasizes / introduces different ones at different times to keep things interesting and exciting.
This type of command requires ear training as well as an understanding of harmony. This is a far more engaging way to play than to simply follow the “play the scale of the chord that the vamp is in” that many who take only a scale-chord approach to improvising will use. Of course, it is important to learn the scales associated with chords, but to do what Mark is doing, it requires an understanding of the impact of these various notes including those “outside” or not included in the scale. This is a mixture of intellectual knowledge and experience, but is not purely academic. It is fun and interesting to learn these details of the music, because it creates such an emotional impact and is more rewarding both to play and to listen to.
Mark also uses a lot of stylistic inflections that take full advantage of the unique sounds that jazz violin can make – scooping the notes, varying vibrato amounts, and a mixture of trills / slides. In this case Mark uses this in a very “eastern” sounding way at times, in combination with scales and note choices that also reflect that style of music. There are some gypsy elements mixed into this, without keeping that flavor throughout the whole solo. This is another aspect of jazz violin improvisation that comes with experience: awareness of other styles of music and incorporating them in a way that is still your own voice.
Also take note of how the full range of the violin is used to keep things interesting and exciting. There are surprising large leaps and shifts of octaves at times – not always straight up and down ascending and descending lines. Mark also makes use of rapid arpeggio themes, such as at 1:02.
Variation – What you can use right now
One of the most important things to notice about this solo, which you can incorporate into your jazz violin playing right now regardless of how much theory or technique you have, is the variety here. Sometimes there are long singing tones held out, other times it is streams of fast sixteenth notes. Other times there are repeated notes used to emphasize rhythmic ideas vs. melodic ideas. Some notes have inflection while other times they are straight. The combination of all these factors, musical, technical, and emotional, really create the full picture here.
There are lots of resources for learning harmony – as a violin player, you will probably enjoy the harmony PDF book for strings included in this improv program. Otherwise, there are many books you can turn to.
For the other elements that make this jazz violin playing so great, keep listening closely, and transcribing the things you love! Stay tuned for more jazz violin lessons.