Mads Tolling expands horizons of jazz violin
Mads Tolling

Mention "jazz musician" or "violinist" to most people, and they'll quickly form an image to go with the words. Smash the two together, however, and they'll be struggling.

"The idea of what the violin can do is a little underdeveloped," says Bay Area innovator Mads Tolling, who has quickly established himself as one of the instrument's leading champions in jazz. "Ninety percent of people, if you talk about jazz violin, their idea is ("gypsy jazz" icon) Stephane Grappelli, and that's it."

For Tolling, it's more a question of what can't the violin do in jazz. Just in the past few months, he's bounced between dates with his fusion-oriented quartet, gigs backing vocalists and acoustic jazz. This weekend, he'll be playing guitar-less gypsy jazz for a Sunday date with the International String Trio at the Sound Room in Oakland.

But maybe that kind of versatility is to be expected given Tolling's origins. A native of Denmark, he grew up learning classical violin via the Suzuki method before the jazz bug bit him in his teens. After several years of getting better and better at playing along with his father's records -- "I spent hours and hours with Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans." -- he formalized his studies by moving to Boston to train at the Berkleee College of Music.

There, he caught the ear of one of his longtime heroes, European jazz-rock violin pioneer Jean Luc Ponty, who recommended the recently graduated and totally unknown Tolling to Stanley Clarke for a spot in the influential bassist's band.

"Playing with Stanley Clarke was such a great opportunity, and it really propelled me more into the fusion side of things," Tolling recalls in an interview with "I was quite shocked I'd gotten the opportunity. I'd hardly even had any paid gigs before that."

The Clarke gig further led to a spot in the Turtle Island Quartet (which prompted Tolling to relocate to the East Bay), the influential Bay Area group that has been blowing apart ideas about what a string section is good for since 1985. Led by the unpredictable David Balakrishnan, the group has mashed everything from tango and John Coltrane to acid rock into the string violin-viola-bass format, giving Tolling even more encouragement to experiment.

"People look at a string quartet and think, 'This is what they do,' " Tolling says. "Turtle Island was all about playing with those expectations."

On his own since 2007, Tolling has learned to be a little more selective, focusing his quartet on a high-energy fusion sound that cleverly quotes various conemptary elements.

"I have to be a little bit careful with my group -- running around too many genres is going to be more difficult for the audience than with a string quartet," he says "Jumping from a fusion number to playing a full-fledged folk tune is just too much...I've learned to stick to my guns a little more."

Tolling still gets plenty of variety with side gigs, however. He's recently worked with several singers and is working on a partnership with one-of-a-kind vocalist Tierney Sutton

"We're out there playing this really progressive stuff with the quartet, but a lot of my favorite songs have words, so it's good to recognize that," Tolling says. "Plus, it's fun to bounce yourself off another person. With a vocalist, you know going in that this is going to have two leads, so part of the fun is how you trade off."

Tolling's 2015 calendar already includes gigs with Latin percussion master John Santos, duets with young pianist Markus Gottschlich and a violin concerto he's writing for the Oakland East Bay Symphony. And there no doubt will be plenty of surprises, unified by common themes of exploration and love for his instrument.

"What I like to stand for is moving the violin into the 21st century" Tolling says.

Mads Tolling performs with the International String Trio 5 p.m. Sunday at the Sound Room in Oakland. Tickets are $20-$25.