Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
It’s often noted that Jazz musicians and stand-up comedians have certain similarities: a need for split-second timing, an emphasis on improvisation, an air of spontaneity that masks years of practice. It’s exceedingly rare, however, to find someone who excels at both—that is to say, someone like jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein.
The bow-tied and bespectacled Weinstein, 34, is in love with swing, hot-jazz and vintage songs, which he plays with élan and chops reminiscent of his violin heroes: Joe Venuti, Stéphane Grappelli, Stuff Smith and Svend Asmussen.
Weinstein, who topped the category Rising Star–Violin in the 2019 DownBeat Critics Poll, is equally adept on mandolin. He also makes quirky short films and sprinkles his sets with a deadpan, brainy humor that plays with the limits of the musician-fan relationship and pokes fun at his own image. In his five-minute animated film Say What? A Geriatric Proposition, he begins by noting that he frequently hears, “You know, you look like you just came from your bar mitzvah.” The film then relates the story of an elderly woman fan who makes a highly inappropriate suggestion at the reception following one of his concerts.
On his sixth leader album, 3x3 (Chesky), Weinstein plays live in the studio with fellow swing enthusiasts—guitarist Matt Munisteri and bassist Tom Hubbard—covering vintage tunes like “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” “Nola” and “Makin’ Whoopee.”
“I don’t really see any of this repertoire as antique,” explained Weinstein, who showed up for the interview in Chesky’s New York office impeccably attired in his customary neckwear, a plaid shirt and contrasting plaid jacket. “The dividing line between so-called ‘old’ and ‘modern’ music is funny,” he mused. “Is ‘Giant Steps’ old? If someone is playing something right now, I think there’s nothing more modern than that.”
Weinstein’s parents gave him his first violin when he was 9. “Then I got a Joe Venuti record when I was about 13,” recalled the mostly self-taught player. “It changed everything. ... That was the first time I had heard jazz and jazz violin. Had I heard Coltrane previously, it would have been a whole different thing.”
In his junior year of high school, Weinstein sent a demo to Bucky and John Pizzarelli, asking for some feedback. He got more than he bargained for: an invitation to sit in on a gig with Bucky. The guitarist then proceeded to invite the teenager to play a show with him the week after that, and Weinstein was off to the races.
During his four years at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, which Weinstein attended on a merit-based scholarship, he commuted to New York on weekends to play gigs, often with one of the Pizzarellis.
Since then, Weinstein has worked to carve out a unique niche in the annals of musicians who do comedy. “With Jack Benny, the punch line was his bad violin playing, the ‘tragedy’ of the playing. Victor Borge was so great, too, but all his comedy at the piano was at the expense of the piano.
“Although my music is serious, the time onstage in between the music doesn’t need to be. It’s part of the performance. ... The audience is there to be entertained.”
In a phone interview, Munisteri, a first-call guitarist who, among many other gigs, is the music director for singer Catherine Russell, said, “Any chance I get to play a gig with Aaron means that not only do we get to play music, but we get to sit around backstage and make one another gag with laughter. Aaron will really push—even if he’s played two choruses that were great, he’ll go for a third to try to top himself. Playing with him is like driving a sports car: You know that if you push him harder, he’ll go further.” DB
Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
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