Jazz redefines the violin family. From outside the performance space at the Washington Park Arts Incubator, you might have easily mistook the instruments if you hadn’t known they were kicking off the first-ever Jazz String Summit that Friday night. Piano-like plucking and convincingly brassy bowing let the headlining group, Musique Noire, channel the genre’s typically cool sounds with instantly identifiable motifs. The septet gradually migrated from standard territory into their world fusion background, with the two violas and a violin producing a thoughtfulness and epic theatricality straight out of an orchestra pit, but still perfectly at home among guitar and drums.
Curated by cellist, composer, and Incubator resident artist Tomeka Reid, the summit was a response to the sidelining of strings within the jazz world. “I don’t see them being programmed as often,” she said. Continuing into the weekend with community and professional workshops, Reid hoped that the summit would foster friendships among players while educating jazz fans. She’d pulled strings to pull string players together from Detroit, New York, and the Chicago area, scheduling four sets from four distinct groups for the opening night’s performance.
Duo Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone operated within jazz’s innovative periphery. Playing guitar and viola, they stepped back from sweet sorrow and bluesy dejection, instead articulating profoundly modern anxieties and preoccupations. Sighing, down-on-your-luck, hands-pocketed meditations are forever relatable, but just a little anachronistic for a decade informed by terror, war, and financial disillusionment—clammy with endemic sarcasm. Halvorson’s guitar patiently accommodated Pavone’s long and aching bows, her frantic plucking, her eerie and uncertain col legno techniques. They treated their electronic pedals like second instruments, applying delay and fuzz at varied settings to produce angry textural effects. They adopted jazz’s soulful expressiveness but wrote it for the more tortured souls of today.
Reid’s own quartet mediated the middle and fringes of jazz. She played to something recognizably jazzy, keeping pace with the swinging drums and bass, working against the guitar’s mellow strumming. Some spidery, ghostly bowing graciously echoed Halvorson and Pavone, but the quartet always returned to a head-bobbing and foot-tapping rhetoric. Reid firmly believes in winning full recognition for strings and grafting their uncompromised personality into the jazz ensemble. “We have to create our own language, our own distinct style,” she said. Her summit’s opening night confidently reflected that objective, uniting string players by championing their inimitable and genre-evolving sounds, anticipating their inventive idioms.