Mads Tolling: Violinist Going Back to His Roots

Jeff Kaliss on February 19, 2015
Mads Tolling
Mads Tolling


You might not think of writing a concerto and premiering it with the Oakland East Bay Symphony as “coming back to my roots”, but Mads Tolling does. Maybe that’s because he was classically trained as a child in Copenhagen, and because, on his way to the stage of the Paramount Theatre this Friday, he’s recorded and toured making jazz, rock, fusion, and even Danish folk music on his violin. With the Turtle Island Quartet, Tolling received two Grammys for Best Classical Crossover album. Now living in Albany in the East Bay, the 34-year-old Tolling records and performs in clubs here and back in Denmark with his own small ensembles. SFCV chatted with him over a lunch of steak tartare at Le Zinc, in San Francisco’s Noe Valley.

I didn’t choose this restaurant for this reason, but I found out that what you call tartarmad is actually a favorite dish in Denmark. Is musical eclecticism also popular over there?
Actually, I was raised classically. I started the Suzuki Method when I was six years old. Eventually I got conventional classical training, which was playing the concertos; I had a private teacher from age six. And when I hit 11 or 12, I got one of the main teachers in Denmark, who taught at the conservatory: Peder Elbek, which changed the focus and the level. But when I got into jazz, when I was about 14 years old, I listened to Miles Davis. I listened to Miles play “Autumn Leaves” and some of the things from Birth of the Cool [a Capitol Records compilation of Davis sessions from 1949 and 1950], and that’s what drew me in.

Was that through a friend?
Through my best friend: my dad, Mogens Tolling. He was a saxophone player, not very accomplished, just played for fun; he had a passion for it. My mom, Annette, had more of a passion for classical music, she liked operas. So they had each their thing, and I’m a product of their influences.

How did Miles make you feel?
He made me feel a sense of intimacy and freedom, at the same time. In classical music, I didn’t feel those elements so much. I’m glad I had the training, don’t get me wrong. But with Miles, I felt you could do — whatever.

Were there any classical composers or performers who got closer to your heart?
I don’t think I was mentally ready for it. But I do remember liking [Danish composer and violinist] Carl Nielsen, a lot of his symphonic works, and Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

So how did you know where and when to go?
Well, I was done with high school, and I felt like I was on a mission. I got into the Rhythmic Music Conservatory. It may sound like a funny name in English, but it means you can study styles besides classical: pop music, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll. In Copenhagen, they have two different conservatories, one for classical and one for non-classical. Had I gone to the classical conservatory, I would have been on a slightly different trajectory than I am now. Then I ended up going to Paris: They had an audition for the Berklee College of Music [in Boston], and I got a nice scholarship. After Berklee, in 2003, I got into the Monk Institute [the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz]; there had never been a violinist there before.

Outside school, did you have role models, showing how the violin could function outside its classical role?
There was a time when a slightly thinner violin sound was appropriate. Stephane Grappelli had a beautiful sound, which he used with acoustic guitar [notably Django Reinhardt. But if you were playing in a jazz setting with drums, bass, you had to make sure you had a sound that would project. Then there was Jean-Luc Ponty, who did a lot with [jazz bassist] Stanley Clarke. I met Stanley through a recommendation from Jean-Luc. And I was influenced by Jean-Luc’s Jazz Violin Summit [on Legacy International in 1999, with Grappelli and American violinist Stuff Smith]. Svend Asmussen  was another role model. He’s turning 99 in two weeks! He played with Duke Ellington, and with [Danish jazz bassist] Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen.

Could you hear a classical element in Ponty?
Yes, I definitely could. And Jean-Luc told me this too; he was even more on the conservatory path than I was. So he has great facility. But when Ponty started playing jazz, he started completely cutting out all the elements of classical music, because he wanted to do it right. If you listen to some of his early recordings, he had a really hard sound, the stuff with [Frank] Zappa, no vibrato, clean tone. And then I think he came around to integrating more classical, not too dissimilar to me. I did some pretty hard-hitting fusion stuff with Stanley, and I think I’m coming back to my roots now, integrating more acoustic-sounding things.

“I did some pretty hard-hitting fusion stuff … and I think I’m coming back to my roots now, integrating more acoustic-sounding things.” – violinist Mads TollingHave you had an opportunity explore chamber music?
With Turtle Island [Quartet], there have been so many collaborations, including with the Assad Brothers, Edgar Meyer, and the Ying Quartet; that was one of our Grammy-winning albums, 4 + Four [Telarc, 2005]. Now I have a group I play with sometimes, called Out of Bounds, another string quartet We did the AIM program, San Francisco’s Adventures in Music, we’ve done that twice, where we go around to elementary and middle schools.

What does Out of Bounds feature?
Similar material to Turtle Island, combining jazz, classical, bluegrass, funk, even, putting that into the chamber music scene. We have Tower of Power, for example.“Stolen Moments”, by Oliver Nelson. Some Chick Corea. And some of my original stuff, with a jazz fusion sensibility.

I noticed that in your recorded ouput under your own name, you have not one but two separate takes on Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”. You could have a whole kennel of them, as far as I’m concerned.
It’s a hell of a song. It’s sometimes rare, in the rock ‘n roll scene, to find songs that have a lot of interesting lines that lend themselves to instrumental versions. And “Black Dog” has that, a lot of different sections, ups and downs dynamically. . .

And is it good for ensemble? You have it in both trio and quartet settings.
I would say so, because you can really shape it. Also: the violin has a rock ‘n’ roll quality to it. You can make it sound a bit like an electric guitar, that screaming quality, register-wise, and you can slide.

Indulge me in more specifics, especially for our violinist readers.
First of all, I’m using the vibrato more as a tool, and as such, it’s slower than classical, and I have it on and off. It’s a lot like what you see a guitarist do, when they bend the notes. With me there’s a lot more bending and shaping of the vibrato, as opposed to that fast thing. And that’s just scratching the surface.

(No pun intended.)
Good one, Jeff! Some of the other things I use: having a good sense of rhythm is totally crucial, and it’s really being able to play across a beat, feel the time flow, being able to play syncopations comfortably, and feeling the rhythm in whatever you’re in. In terms of playing technique, I would say, bowing-wise, I use a lot of fingers and wrists to make those short bows, very rhythmic. And that was actually how my first teachers taught me. That translates well to these styles, because you gotta have a very loose wrist.

For jazz, it’s actually legato music. A lot of times, in classical music, you create a short space between the notes [he hums some Bach]. But whenever you make that space, the groove goes away. That’s not to say it’s not the right way to play Bach. But a lot of times in rock ‘n’ roll and jazz, it’s different, you really want to sustain. Same thing in “Black Dog” [he hums a section, without the legato], it wouldn’t work. So I keep sustaining the bow, the stroke, I don’t make the space, and that creates the right sound, if you will. With the right hand, if you do more arm, that space will be created and you’ll sound more — for the lack of a better word — classical.

Do jazz collaborators feel you swing better than what they’d expect from classically-trained violinists?
I think I probably do have more of a natural tendency to swing. I remember when I was playing Vivaldi, when I was 12 or 13 years old, I would tap my foot when I played, I would want to feel the rhythm. And you’re not supposed to do that in classical music! Eventually, I was able to hide my foot-tapping and just wiggle my big toe. At that point you think, there’s something else that wants to get out there.

I remember when I was playing Vivaldi, when I was 12 or 13 years old, I would tap my foot when I played, I would want to feel the rhythm …  At that point you think, there’s something else that wants to get out there.” – Mads TollingDo you use electronic effects?
I have right now a very simple set-up. First, a pre-amp; I have a pickup I’ve installed. — Actually, I have two different acoustic violins I use, depending on whether I need the pickup to be pretty loud. I have this one, which is a Polish instrument I got when I was in high school – I went to Warsaw with my mom when I was 17 and we got this instrument . . .  And it’s a really nice instrument. What I have on that is my pickup that’s meant to be heard over louder-sounding instruments like drums.

I use amplification based on who else I’m playing with. . . It’s a Yamaha pickup. And I process both my instruments through Fishman Pro EQ, and what that does is make the tone warmer and nicer. It’s an acoustic pickup designed for acoustic instruments. . . I also have a reverb unit, I think it’s called Lexington Reverb, you can set it like a concert hall or a church. . . I’m likely to do that if I play a place that’s kind of dead-sounding, where there’s not much reverb naturally. And what I always try to go for is warmth of sound. I don’t like a bright, tinny, violin sound. I’m competing with saxophone players, trumpet players, who have a thicker sound, so I’m always trying to get a thicker sound on my violin, to blend with everything else.

Did the Oakland East Bay Symphony step in to bring you back to your classical roots?
They had a competition, New Visions/New Vistas, and I was not selected to the first batch, but I submitted my material. My earlier bands had been focused around having that fusion sound, and I still love that sound. But I think lately, in my concerts and playing and writing for the Symphony, and for big band and myself, I’m more interested in getting all the subtleties of the violin out there. 

I think the way the music scene is moving has been away from that, for a few years. Some people think of fusion as being a bit dated. . . It’s a very interesting thing nowadays, finding your voice, finding your audience, finding what you stand for. . . I guess I’ve been very eclectic with my projects. . . Some people tell you that’s dangerous; but in other ways it can be a forte, if you’re able to channel it. It showcases the violin doing a lot of different possible things. With some other instruments, it might not work, say with an accordion playing punk rock. But the violin has strong roots in fiddle music, in classical music, in jazz guys have done it. So there’s a precedent.

“I guess I’ve been very eclectic with my projects. . . Some people tell you that’s dangerous; but in other ways it can be a forte, if you’re able to channel it.” – Mads TollingAnd where is the Begejstring, which translates as “Excitement” in the title of your concerto, for you?
I haven’t played it yet with the Symphony yet. They said, “You can write a piece that’s 15 or 20 minutes”, but I realized I want to write something that’s substantial, that can be programmed. So it ended up closer to 24 minutes and three movements. It was a huge amount of time, some of those nights when I was working 15 hours straight and printing out the parts.

As part of writing the piece, I had a tutor, John Kendall Bailey, who’s the pre-concert speaker of the Oakland Symphony. He’s a conductor. I started in September and finished in mid-January, and I think I’ve applied techniques I’d used writing for big band in 2013. I was obviously also using my knowledge writing arrangements and originals for Turtle Island Quartet. On top of that, I got the Samuel Adler orchestration book [The Study of Orchestration, W.W. Norton]. Your readers might want to know that I’ll also be doing a really cool collaboration with [singer] Tierney Sutton next month, a the Napa City Winery and the Café Stritch in San Jose. We’ll do part of my symphony piece, reduced to be played by my quartet. She wants to be one of the instruments! 

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