She is a brilliant world-class violinist on the threshold of a major career as a classical solo artist. She is also one of the very best of the present generation of emerging young jazz stars. Rarely does a musician emerge who possesses the talent, skills, intelligence, and drive crucial to becoming a major player in both the classical and jazz worlds; so rarely, in fact, that only a few names come immediately to mind, among them Eddie Daniels (clarinet), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), and Joe Kennedy (violin). World, meet Sara Caswell.
Sara’s parents are both accomplished musicians, and she and her sister Rachel, who sings on several tracks of this recording, began their musical studies at an early age. From the beginning Sara was exposed to the best in music in both the classical and jazz genres, and while still a student — first in high school, then in college — she began winning awards and competitions and receiving invitations to perform in a variety of musical settings. She is a three-time winner of the Best Classical Instrumentalist Award of the prestigious Down Beat magazine Student Music Awards and has appeared as a guest soloist with a number of fine symphony orchestras playing major works from the classical repertoire while at the same time astounding jazz audiences with her brilliant technique, gorgeous sound, and unbridled sense of swing.
She is a long-acknowledged phenom in the local music scene of Bloomington, Indiana and Indiana University and has gained wider recognition performing as a member of such groups as Sisters in Jazz and with Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Joe Kennedy, Matt Glaser, Johnny Frigo, and Darol Anger in the touring group “Four Generations of Jazz Violin.” Though young in years, Sara is already a rapidly maturing musician with exceptional vision and imagination, the beginning of an original voice and style, and all of the requisite skills and tools to become a major player in the jazz field. First Song, her debut CD recording, offers the listener the opportunity to become acquainted with the musical mind and world of this remarkable young player.
“Bemsha Swing” is given a wonderfully quirky treatment, one which I am certain would please both Denzil Best, who wrote the piece, and Thelonious Monk, who popularized it. Its inclusion on this recording is quirky, too. According to Sara, “Including this tune was unplanned. Lynne, Steve, Jack and I were recording a different song with little luck, so we laid down a take of ‘Bemsha Swing’ for a break. In the end, it was too good to ignore.” Steve’s wonderfully loose time feel and creative use of color provide the perfect foundation, and all of the soloists, including Steve, use the thematic material very effectively.
“Isfahan,” by Billy Strayhorn, is from Duke Ellington's The Far East Suite, and was traditionally played by Johnny Hodges as a ballad. However, on this recording, it is given an unusual and attractive treatment as a swing piece.
“Charms of the Night Sky” by trumpeter Dave Douglas is a piece which Sara first heard on his 1998 Winter & Winter release Charms of the Night Sky. She was drawn to the album’s unique instrumentation of trumpet, violin, accordion, and bass and to the intricate harmonic and melodic designs Douglas employed in his writing. She chose to recreate the mysticism of this composition through a different instrumentation: violin, voice, piano, bass, and drums. The melody is haunting and introspective, and the blend of Sara’s violin and Rachel’s voice is extraordinary. Sara plays a beautiful, unhurried solo, and the mood of the piece is sustained throughout by Lynne’s sensitive piano playing.
“Speak Low,” a popular song by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash, is a favorite of jazz musicians, and on this recording Sara gives it a buoyant 6/8 treatment. Her excellent solo is well-constructed and uses the thematic material and its shapes beautifully. Lynne’s solo is particularly effective in its change of mood and meter, beginning very expressively in an almost floating time feel and then moving into a hard-swinging 4/4.
“First Song” by bassist Charlie Haden is a piece which, in Sara’s words, “immediately appealed to me with its hymn-like simplicity. I have found it to be the song that best represents my approach to melody.” Sara plays with great sensitivity and grace, and her melodic gift is at its expressive best on this lovely composition. Jack creates a wonderfully Charlie Hadenesque bass solo, reflecting a careful attention to the melodic line and the use of space.
“Anna’s Song” is a tender waltz written by Sara in loving memory of her cat who, after being dumped and abandoned on the side of the road in 1991, adopted the Caswell family and enjoyed seven happy years with them, finally succumbing in 1998. According to Sara, “Bill Evans was in my ears when composing this tune.” The attractive melody is followed by well-constructed and imaginative solos by Jack, Lynne and Sara.
“Useless Landscapes” is a classic Jobim tune performed with great sensitivity by all.
“When Sunny Gets Blue,” a 1956 composition by Jack Segal and Marvin Fisher, was a tremendous pop hit in the 1960s for singer Johnny Mathis. Sara remembers having heard this tune for the first time at a wedding reception she was playing and being very taken by its plaintive melody. Its melancholy character is expressed beautifully in both Sara’s and Lynne’s playing, and the addition of the Coltrane changes at various points provides a nice point of interest for the listener.
“The Fury” is an original composition inspired by two of Sara’s favorite tunes: guitarist Pat Metheny’s “Song for Bilbao,” a driving jazz-rock composition with a lyrical melody, and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker’s “African Skies,” a compound-meter tune. Steve’s imaginative drumming provides the anchor for this intense and exhilarating rendition.
First Song is a brilliant, well-conceived and convincingly executed CD, aided in no small measure by Sara’s choice of accompanying musicians: two universally recognized masters in pianist Lynne Arriale and drummer Steve Davis and a rising star in bassist Jack Helsley. This is one hell of a debut recording for a super young player. Remember well the name — Sara Caswell!
David Baker Bloomington, IN March 2000
Chair of the
Indiana University School of Music Jazz Studies Department
Who is that girl?
Sara Caswell is just starting out, though she's been at it a long time already. When I first saw Sara, she was even more of a kid, and causing just as much stir. It's easy to imagine the surprise at the Stanford Jazz Workshop where I was teaching a few years back, when out of this 14-year old blonde girl come exploding waves of the baddest hippest bebop in the whole student population...and on violin! That's what had many of us flummoxed. There are plenty of folks who've played jazz violin all their lives and never even got close to Sara's powerful, incisive vibe. Now, just a few years later, she's not only playing all that, but transcending it, spinning out gorgeous waves of tone, improvising melodies of velvet beauty, without cliche. Who the heck and how?
The mystery clears somewhat as we discover her background. Daughter of two musicologist, with an older sister who plays great cello and scat sings as well as anyone, Sara studied at Indiana University with not only the legendary violinist Josef Gingold but with one of Jazz's greatest teachers, David Baker. The pieces seem to fit... but the magic of Sara's violin voice arches out over these mere facts, and surprises us all over again. What's really interesting is how reliable Sara is. The gal can dig in and deliver dense elaborate rhapsodic musical content, deliver of herself, in situations ranging from the largest concert hall to a noisy club jam session, or this recording session, or an even open-sided shed in the Tennessee woods; I've seen her do that, and I'll see more. We'll all see more, if we're lucky. Just keep an ear & an eye out for that amazing fiddle of hers. It won't be that difficult. She'll tell us more about who she is, and we'll be delighted to hear.
Darol Anger Compass
Sara Caswell is a very gifted musician. She is already a consummate classical violinist, and she has now chosen the great challenge of embarking on a career playing both classical music and jazz. Sara has a great intuitive feel for the jazz idiom, and a beautiful melodic sense. The material she has chosen for her first CD shows a wonderful balance of interesting, challenging material, which reflects her deep musical sensibility. I look forward to seeing the future unfold for this shining star.
Lynne Arriale TCB
I was really getting back into my jazz playing, performing Stephane Grappelli tribute concerts with a new jazz trio of mine when I first heard Sara Caswell. I was re-discovering my passion for this genre similar to when I first happened upon it at age thirteen, the year I first saw Grappelli live. As I was preparing for my new trio, I was wondering what the state of jazz violin was and if it was going any place at all. You know, someplace where it has not already been.
I went to a string teacher’s convention in Kansas City and Sara, then a teenager, was performing at one of the functions. My appearance schedule didn’t allow me to hear her. She already was building a reputation in the relatively small jazz violin community. Based upon things I heard about her from the likes of Matt Glaser and Darol Anger, I hired Sara to teach at the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp...before I had ever heard her. That was quite unusual for me because prior to that my criterion was more strict. A teacher either had to be a legend or such a virtuoso that they shouldn't be denied a position teaching at the camp. Sara’s classes there are now a priority for me to attend. To hear this talent incrementally in transition is quite exciting. I always learn from her. I would recommend being around her. She is a gifted teacher and articulates her thoughts well. She can really jam and that of course is important at “Fiddle Camp.”
Now I am in receipt of her first recording. What a wonderful debut! There is some very important work on this CD. I am very moved by her sensitivity on the ballads. Haden’s “First Song” is exquisite and easily the highlight of the album. This performance of the song is most likely a very real contribution and could be among the most important of all jazz violin recordings of the last few decades.
There is a sound that I love on the violin. Sara can do it. It is a slightly covered tone as if you were speaking with your hand over your mouth. Words meant only for the person closest to you. It is how a violinist speaks very intimately from an inner self. In a way, it’s among the greatest gifts a string performer can provide a listener. A look inside the soul of an artist. That’s the deal. It is what the really great artists bring to the table when they speak through their instruments to an audience. A sense of violin communication that seems as if it were meant only for you.
This kind of interpretation is a formidable challenge on the violin, because one has to overcome a vast array of technical problems and master them in a way that never reveals even a hint of difficulty to the audience. Never letting the audience worry that you might not get through the next phrase without going out of tune, scratching or letting your bow technique take you to a place in the measure you did not want to end up. Violin playing is so riddled with overcoming technical problems that most good violinists will never experience what Sara creates with her instrument. It is beautifully refined emotion that lifts the spirit and at the same time, crystallizes for me this thought: Jazz violin could really have something to offer again.
I love Sara’s ability to understand harmony and complex associations of advanced compatibility concepts as they relate to improvising through the various harmonic progressions. These skills permeate the album. It is very evident on the up-tempo material especially. This is where her sound is immediately identifiable with post - 1960s modern jazz. One hears the connections to the Jean-Luc Ponty lineage from Europe. There is a small circle of players that has identified with Ponty’s music prior to his fusion sound of the 70s, and take their cues from his earlier albums like Aurora. Whether Sara is a Ponty fan or not is incidental to the fact that it is bewildering that Ponty himself discontinues performing or recording a style which he himself defined for the violin in favor of his contemporary sounds and world music of the last three decades. The father of modern jazz violin, abandons his creation for all practical purposes but leaves the seed of inspiration for people like Sara to thrive on. The question is...will Sara find a path to an audience which Ponty and those who came after him were not able to find? If a path can be found, Sara is the person who will find it.
There is another distinguishing moment for Sara’s violin with Dave Douglas’s seductive “Charms of the Night Sky” featuring Rachel Caswell on vocals. Now I am an instrumental snob mostly but I have put in my time with vocalists, recording for many years in the “other” Nashville. It is very difficult for a violin to blend with almost anything except a close “family” member, but it is especially arduous with the human voice. Of course the tune itself gives one a head start because it is a very nice one indeed. But even so, it is strikingly gorgeous that Sara can provide such a vocal quality let alone a complementary one in her violin work. What she is doing with Rachel’s vocal is hard to do, folks. What we’re hearing is a natural gift that comes with a musical instinct. It is one that she could only be born with. She has allowed herself the sensitivity to discover how versatile the sound of the violin is. You know, a virtuoso of the violin will get one’s attention, but the qualities that must accompany that virtuosity...those qualities that make the instrument truly “sing” are especially unique.
Once in while I wonder how and if ever again we’ll hear a new generation of great jazz violinists...a generation to follow the era of Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Eddie South, Stuff Smith and Jean-Luc Ponty. How did these great legends communicate with their audience of violin and jazz enthusiasts? Somehow I don’t think it was the obvious qualities which made their jazz violin playing different from other genres of violin playing (i.e. advanced improvisational skills, harmonic knowledge, swing rhythm or the ability to sound like a horn). I believe, rather, it was and is the qualities that make the violin and the playing of the violin universal in its appeal (i.e. crafted emotional content, refined phrasing, driving and catchy rhythms, soul, aggressive accents and punctuation and intellectual subtlety).
Jazz violin needs a universal ambassador...a player whose universal appeal can bring together those who love jazz violin...a player who can pick up where the last generation left off. Sara Caswell is well on her way to extending that tradition to touch new audiences. I can guarantee you one thing, if indeed there is a future for this violin music, the young lady of jazz violin, Sara Caswell, will be right in the middle of it.
3/7/00 San Diego, California
Don't despair fellow jazz violin lovers, the future of our beloved tradition is in the strong, capable hands of the young lady whose CD you're presently gazing at! Sara's beautifully lyrical, intensely swinging, and tremendously creative jazz violin playing is a joy to listen to and a wonder to behold. On this gorgeous and well-balanced CD, she takes us hopping through the contemporary landscape of the violin, with all the tunes unified by her passionate improvising and ravishing violin sound. In the future there may be other players who can play all styles of jazz and classical music with equal verve, but for now there's just one person who can do it--Sara Caswell!
Matt Glaser, String Department Chair, Berklee College of Music