A Few Minutes With Mark O’Connor

Try as one might, you just can’t classify fiddle virtuoso Mark O’Connor. The 48-year-old artist is often immersed in so many projects that he literally defies a singular description, thanks in part to his classical music compositions as well as bringing various genres together, such as his collaborations with celloist Yo Yo Ma and jazz master Wynton Marsalis.

Plus, when he’s not cooking up new ways to portray his passion for music, he spends a considerable amount of time working with his instruction camps that count some of music’s finest musicians among the alumni.

O’Connor’s passion for the art form is showcased in his latest release, Jam Session, which features him playing with Chris Thile (Nickel Creek), jazz guitarist Frank Vignola, guitarist Bryan Sutton, Bass-men Jon Burr and Byron House. Featuring superb improvisational moments recorded live on various concert stages, Jam Session spotlights excellent musicians caught in the moment of being totally spontaneous. It’s fun, entertaining, and totally unique.

Pollstar spoke with Mark O’Connor and just like his amazing accomplishments, the man behind the violin is a modern example of a musical Renaissance man, always aiming for the future and new peaks to conquer.

Photo: Deanna Rose

Some articles about you refer to your instrument as a fiddle, while others refer to it as a violin. Is there any difference between the two?

No, it’s the same instrument. The fiddle and fiddling are sort of known for America’s folk music. Some styles, like jazz violin and jazz fiddle, are interchangeable.

I play the same violin for everything I do. What I’m doing in my career – in my music – is I’m blurring the boundaries of violin and fiddle and playing to a point where it doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s sort of American String Music.

And American String Music has a great deal of folk music traditions inherent in the music, so I’ve really spent my career making sure what I’m doing is really inclusive. Sometimes I’ll intentionally include the word “violin” and the word “fiddle” just to make sure I’m not leaving anybody out.

I think on nearly every one of my albums I’ve always put “violin” just because I think the word is a worldwide-known term and I wanted to make sure the music I was playing and writing, that classical violinists knew it was something they might want to partake in. If it was “fiddle” music, perhaps a lot of classical violinists would say, “I don’t do that.”

By calling it “violin,” and a lot of things I’m doing this year, like scoring “American Classical” music being inclusive of folk styles, it brings more people to the table.

You’re known for bringing musicians from different genres to the table.

Yes. I’ve gotten an amazing amount of great musicians, to the greatest being Yo Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis, that played music that I’ve written and appeared on my albums.

But you started with guitar and then changed to violin. What prompted the change?

I actually didn’t change. I just added the violin. I kept my guitar playing up until recent years.

Initially, I just wanted to add to what I was doing. The violin became such a dominant force of nature for me that I ended up playing much more violin than guitar. Violin was something that seemed like I was able to express myself creatively. That’s something that really attracted me from the beginning.

Why aren’t more kids attracted to violin in the same way many kids are attracted to guitar?

The guitar has rock ’n’ roll. I think when rock ’n’ roll came into the 1950s, it really changed everything. It changed country music, it changed jazz, it changed classical. The world had not known that dominant of a force.

Unlucky for violin – most all of those first rock groups did not involve one. That’s really a shame. But the violin is a very flexible instrument and can take place in so many different settings. One of the reasons I started to offer my own violin method – I even have a rock ’n’ roll tune in method book #2 and something called “Boogie Woogie” in book #1 – that’s to make sure kids feel that the violin is something that is accessible to all American styles. It’s just not hoe-downs and waltzes, it’s a lot of stuff.

The violin itself is more flexible than most other instruments because it can do anything. With guitar, you have to keep changing guitars in order to play a certain type of music. A solid body if you’re playing rock or country. If you’re playing jazz, you want a hollow body or a semi-hollow body. If you’re playing classical, you’ll want a nylon-string guitar. If you’re playing bluegrass or folk, you’ll want a steel-string guitar.

With the violin, you just have this one instrument that can change course as quickly as you can change the stroke of the bow.

When it comes to learning the violin, how is your method different from others?

One of the biggest things I wanted to introduce in my method was the fact that you can learn how to play a string instrument by using American materials. Other methods available only dealt with European music and none of them included American music.

It’s almost a tragedy that methodology, resources and institutions always left out American music. Even today at universities there’s so little attention and weight given to the incredible history of American folk music.

I know all about music of the world and I would definitely put American folk music as the most important and powerful.

So it’s just a head-scratcher to me. I feel like I know a couple of the reasons why. America has had a messy past with racism, slavery and the treatment of native Americans. Governments and institutions have come very slowly to accepting the music of all our people. The violin has really suffered because of that. If we had embraced all these wonderful cultures, this incredible cross-pollination of African-American, European-American, Latino and so forth throughout the last couple of 100 years, at least.

I think artistically, and perhaps culturally, the violin would have a different role today.

Do you encounter students who are brand new to the instrument, or do they already have some experience by the time you meet with them at your instruction camps?

The string camps I hold during the summer are a little more geared towards advanced and intermediate students.

But the method books themselves start right at the beginning. The teacher will show the child how do hold the instrument, how to take it out of the case and care for it.

At the same time they have that book, they’re starting to learn their very first bow strokes. It’s very exciting for me. I’ve been delving into the advance professional side of music for my entire professional life. It was wonderful for me to go back to the very beginning and be able to offer this based on the experiences of an American musician as well as my first experiences of learning the violin. To a large degree I can remember even minute by minute, how I learned to play.

My goal is everybody can play the violin. They just need to be engaged and interested in the materials and understand that it’s incredibly joyful and it’s part of your life.

So I spent a lot of time in the method books talking and having illustrations and pictures about, not only American history to get some support and foundations of earlier American folk songs, but pictures of being a child, playing outside, and having a good time as a child with a violin, making it, hopefully, interchangeable.

You have a new CD – Jam Session, with Chris Thile, Frank Vignola, Bryan Sutton, Jon Burr and Byron House. What can you tell us about it?

It was some cuts taken from a series of concerts over a five-or six-year period. The concept of it was interesting. I have my Hot Swing group (Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing) and then I have Chris Thile and Bryan Sutton from the bluegrass angle. There were several concerts where we sort of matched up. The Hot Swing group was kind of the default group to do the concert. That was how the concert was booked. It sort of grew into the Jam Session.

I went through some of the tapes and I remembered this one recording of “In The Cluster Blues” from the “RockyGrass” festival in Colorado.

I had it in the back of my mind as the idea came about. These weren’t just jam sessions. They were moments of really intense communication and high-level artistry in the exchanges between the musicians in an unlikely setting. It really brought out the best of us.

I really, really enjoyed reviewing the tapes, and I thought it would make a really interesting concept for an album where I would capture the best rhythmic grooves and intense interplay – a communicative kind of playing, spirited and inspirational – and that’s the concept behind putting this collection together, all recorded in front of live audiences.

What kind of venues were used for the performances?

Mostly concert halls, except for one outdoor festival. “In The Cluster Blues” is a 16-to 17-minute-long cut. It was unbelievable as to how it happened. Each soloist was so great in their level of expressionism, dynamic and inspiration. It was a moment where we felt like this wasn’t going to happen again, and you had to lay out your very, very best. The intoxicating feeling of having everybody right there with you pushing each other towards the best, was something you could feel. Things like that, you really can’t get in a studio recording. You feel like you’re laying it all out there for this specific audience that’s watching you. A lot of it is just real luck.

I think the match-up of Thile, Vignola, Sutton, and these bass players and me somehow brought out the best in each other when we played together. Even though Vignola said he didn’t know much about bluegrass, and Thile said he didn’t know much about jazz, that it didn’t matter. We got on stage and took it to some other place. I think it was the willingness to be in a learning environment, while at the same time, knowing that you’re excelling at a point that this is probably breakthrough playing, where nothing’s ever sounded like that.

Photo: Jim McGuire
“With the violin, you just have this one instrument that can change course as quickly as you can change the stroke of the bow.”

So it really was a unique moment – a musical journey that will never happen quite like that again?

At least for some of the track there’s moments, minutes of time where it goes to this indescribable place. You could never write it down, and you could never plan or organize for it. It probably wouldn’t happen again. It was an escalating moment where it’s almost like Nirvana, where you hit it and you know you’re in something that’s very special. At the same time, you realize you’re enjoying the moment because you don’t know if it’s ever going to happen again.

Do you always know it when it’s happening, or are there times that you don’t recognize a moment as being special until you hear the tapes?

I think you know it when you’re in it. It’s a feeling like the ride of a lifetime and you feel the energy. You’re completely consumed in it. You might be critical of yourself after it’s over because you realize you’re in a position to push yourself to the very utmost and maybe you feel like you didn’t make it all the way.

But a large part of your thinking is that you realize how special that moment was, those times on stage. And you can feel it after it comes across. You can feel the energy of the rhythm.

That’s the main thing. When the groove or the rhythmic sync of it is so locked in and things are just clicking, almost like people are channeling each other’s musicality. That’s when you really know you’re in for something very special.

It’s those moments I reviewed on the tapes, recollecting here and there when things were very good.

Were there any surprises when you reviewed the tapes?

There were some surprises. The very last cut – “My Inner Swing” – I remembered playing very well and I remembered the amazing rhythm. But when you’re in the moment, sometimes you feel it’s special but you don’t necessarily know why. When I analyzed that piece again, I was able to figure out the bass player, Jon Burr, was almost never playing on the downbeats. It was a wild syncopation he was doing while everybody else was playing this really heavy gypsy groove. You could never sit in a rehearsal and say, “Hey, let’s do that.” It was something that doesn’t even sound like a good idea. But it just happened, and it happened in a magical way and you realize it was out of an utter celebration of the moment that things happened the way they did.

“It’s almost a tragedy that methodology, resources and institutions always left out American music.”

Does that happen a lot? You’re known for improvisation, but your description makes it sound like it was a very special moment, even for you.

Yes. A long time ago, I had a goal in that with every performance I did, somewhere in that performance I would get to a moment where I was channeling something that was at an extraordinary level for myself. It’s hard to do that consistently. As a better musician, you feel you can play at a level you’re happy with for most of the time. But it’s those magical things that start working extra well. The feeling of the bow and the string, where you’re just nailing the tone and the sound is just right. You feel almost like you’re playing outside of yourself, but you can handle it. I think that’s what keeps me going back to the stage over and over again. The feeling that you could deliver something special to the audience that you couldn’t do the night before.

As a teacher, have you encountered any students that might be described as future Mark O’Connors?

Oh yeah. It’s the new prototype (laughs). My own journey on the violin was absolutely unique 25, 30 years ago. But now we are finding that this thing is opening up. A lot of people are following in my footsteps and making a career out of it. This is just incredible. We were talking about Chris Thile. That whole group of people – Nickel Creek – I was a mentor to them.

And Bryan Sutton, also. I was one of his guitar heroes. Then there’s a whole bunch of people coming up after them, who are in their early 20s, late teens. It’s a very exciting time, and most of these people we’ve seen through my camps. The Nickel Creek kids came out to my camps when they were 11, 12 years old.

Who else has come out of your camps?

Natalie MacMaster was in my camp when she was 19. A lot of my teachers today were former students at the camp. Half of my teaching roster is former students – Aubrey Haynie, Casey Driessen, Brittany Haas.

Without looking it up, can you name all the people you’ve played and recorded with over the years?

[Laughs] That would be hard to do because I was a session player. For six years I did almost nothing else than play on albums. I played on 450 albums in a six year period.

Last call. Is there anything you would like to tell the readers?

One of the things I think is very interesting that’s happened in the past few years is that I was able to compose my “Americana Symphony.”

Composing for an orchestra is obviously one of the greatest challenges a musician could ever have. For me it was such a unique experience (and hopefully is for listeners), to see a musician with my set of experiences being able to almost act like a tug boat and pull all those experiences into a place where I could bend and transform them into symphonic materials with an original sound, an original approach – a new style of classical music – without ever having me on stage. In essence a European-styled orchestra with those instruments, inhabiting the language of the American music system that I’ve pulled together.

For me, that stands as one of my unique achievements. Every time I’ve heard it played – I just heard it a few weeks ago by the Amarillo Symphony in Texas – it’s just a wonderful thing to hear those 80 or 90 musicians play something that was so far inside your own life experience and pulling it through the instruments of the orchestra.

It’s completely different than the Jam Session album where you work hard at excelling at your instrument in order to be able to have a jam-session moment. With a symphony, you work hard at your music in order to be able to compose something and set it in stone.

Want to know more about Mark O’Connor? Americana Symphony, recorded with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is available on CD. The artist also established his own YouTube channel earlier this year. Of course, the best place to start learning about O’Connor is to visit his website – MarkOConnor.com.