Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto & Fiddle Dance Suite


Title: Violin Concerto in D & Fiddle Dance Suite
Artist: Wynton Marsalis (comp.), Nicola Benedetti, Philadelphia Orchestra
Label: Decca Classics
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: July 11, 2019


Decca Classics has released a remarkable collaboration between Grammy-winning jazz composer Wynton Marsalis and violin virtuoso Nicola Benedetti. Marsalis’s Violin Concerto in D and his Fiddle Dance Suite for solo violin were recently recorded by Benedetti, the former performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Cristian Mǎcelaru. These two works represent new heights in Marsalis’s compositional style as he deftly mixes classical music with other idioms.

Many of Marsalis’s greatest musical achievements emerge from his ability to bring jazz into contact with diverse and far-reaching genres from the chamber, concert, and dance halls. In this collaboration with Benedetti, Marsalis brings elements from classical, Celtic, and American folk music together with the “virtuosic chicanery” of New Orleans jazz. He even blends the Irish jig with an Elvin-Jones shuffle and fuses Scottish reels with the blues.

Marsalis’s Violin Concerto in D was inspired by Benedetti’s life as an educator and performer, but was written from the perspective of a “New Orleans bluesman,” bringing the experiences and musical idioms of two very different musicians together in stunning fluidity. Between the first two movements, “Rhapsody” and “Rondo Burlesque,” orchestral swells and rhythmic outbursts combine the colors of Debussy and Stravinsky with the syncopated jazz of New Orleans, while a scene of deep reverie (culminating in what Marsalis calls “ancestral memory”) gives way to a Mardi Gras circus, with all its color and chaos.

In Fiddle Dance Suite, Marsalis utilizes musical markers of Benedetti’s Scottish ancestry, while also drawing inspiration from the Baroque era, ragtime, bebop, and more. The third movement, “Jones’ Jig,” places Irish, African, and jazz rhythms in tension with one another in order to explore their “negotiation and reconciliation,” a theme that points to the kind of profound intercultural dialogue music affords us. The fourth movement, “Nicola’s Strathspey,” mixes traditional Scottish dance music with the blues, genres that Marsalis believes share fundamental qualities of improvisation, rhythm, and expectation despite their different histories and locations.

These musical and rhythmic encounters, which may result in jarring juxtapositions or effortless unions, transport us between the near and far, the familiar and mysterious. In so doing, they are able to evoke vivid stories and powerful feelings of joy, fear, anticipation, even nostalgia. As Benedetti herself noted, “These compositions take us from the introspection of a Spiritual to the raucous celebration of a Hootenanny, from a lullaby to a nightmare, and from a campfire to a circus. We travel far and wide to distant corners of the world, the mind and the soul.” In both pieces on this album, Marsalis and Benedetti transform virtuosity into a device of storytelling that challenges the divides between otherwise disparate musical languages, demonstrating the incredible expressive power of orchestral jazz.

Reviewed by Molly Covington