by Marilyn Lester
Aaron Weinstein is a genius. He’s a former child prodigy and now an adult virtuoso of the violin and mandolin, plus quirkily funny and drolly intellectual. Critics owe him a vote of thanks: with such a formidable résumé, half the work of reviewing is already done. For this outing of ViolinSpirations, all of the trademark Weinstein virtues were in place (including bow tie), with the added perks of long-time collaborators Tedd Firth (piano and music direction) and Manhattan Transfer jazz vocalist Janis Siegel as a special guest.
Interspersed with sublime music is comedy. Tony Bennett dubbed Weinstein the “Groucho of the violin” and the moniker has stuck (although he’s also been compared to Jack Benny, Victor Borge and Oscar Levant). For this reviewer, Weinstein’s waggish, self-deprecating humor is far more in the style of Woody Allen. No matter, take your pick – it’s all good. Weinstein will make you laugh and kvell: such a young man, such talent. The musical opener, a medley of “Pennies from Heaven/Ain’t Misbehavin’/Just One of Those Things” reveals at least two facts: 1. Weinstein’s style is to ease into a song; his initial approach is gentle and somewhat languorous, sliding into full jazz mode of up-tempo improvisation. 2. When given the opportunity to solo in the jazz idiom, Tedd Firth reveals why he’s one of the top, top piano men in the business.
Weinstein’s first guest was writer and man-about-town, Michael Musto, who turns out to have vocal chops. Musto belted out an amusing “I Loves You Porgy” the way he remembered hearing Diana Ross “murder it:” in a completely inappropriate Las Vegas lounge act style. Weinstein’s second guest, Janis Siegel, scatted and sang an energetic, ultra-jazzy “Jeepers Creepers,” reminding everyone why her group, The Manhattan Transfer,” which she joined in 1973, is still touring today. Siegel’s second number, a traditional version of “Last Night When We Were Young” was pleasant but less successful than a song in her well-honed jazz style.
One of the wonders of Weinstein is that he has a remarkably delicate touch on the violin, even in up-tempo mode, fingering and bowing like a whirlwind. “I Want to Be Happy,” “Someone to Watch Over Me/Somebody Loves Me” and an especially brilliant “Georgia on My Mind” all hit home runs, demonstrating Weinstein’s mastery, including modulations reminiscent of a vocalist’s approach to song. Also notable are improvisations that feature subtle call-and-response-riffs within his own playing.
As if being a master of jazz violin isn’t enough, Weinstein’s virtuosity also encompasses the mandolin (an “exotic” instrument in the lute family, picked like a guitar). His wistful “Over the Rainbow” exploded into a lively “I Won’t Dance,” certifying that Weinstein’s chord melody arrangements have a finesse and flourish that make him sound as if an entire orchestra is at work (a wonder considering that the mandolin is considered a soprano instrument). The mandolin appeared again for Weinstein’s encore, a flying fingers rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” reversing into the gentlest of lullabies, “Mr. Rogers Theme Song.” It was a special way to say good night.
At thirty years of age, Weinstein has already created a legacy; he has assured his stardom in the constellation of the rarified group of musicians who play jazz violin. We suspect the pioneers of the craft, principally Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith and Stéphane Grappelli are smiling broadly from their heavenly bandstand.
Aaron Weinstein ViolinSpirations, June 2, June 2, Jul 7, Aug 4 at 7:30 PM
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