With Help From Grappelli, Young Musician Makes Leap From Classical To Jazz07:42

Ben Powell (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Ben Powell (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Ben Powell has been playing the violin for a very long time.

“Really in the womb my mother was teaching and I started playing when I was two," Powell said. "But I didn’t really start reading music until I was about nine or ten. So it was eight years of aural dictation, through the Suzuki method.”

A 1983 photo of French violonist Stephane Grappelli. (AP)
A 1983 photo of French violonist Stephane Grappelli. (AP)

Powell’s mother was a classical violinist and teacher, and the young student eventually learned jazz the same way: by listening to recordings in his bedroom as a teenager in England.

“I would practice a lot playing classical music, and then I would put on some Grappelli and put the headphones on, and I’d just swing with him for as long as I could, whole records at a time," Powell said. "I wouldn’t know the chords, I wouldn’t know the tunes, but I would just slowly pick up his licks, and it was more getting myself inside that kind of expression.”

Stephane Grappelli, one of the best known jazz violinists in history, is the 25-year-old's hero.

Grappelli's collaboration with guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930s, '40s and '50s has influenced countless musicians. So for a young, rising player to be compared to Grappelli, well, it’s pretty high praise. And it’s been happening to Powell, a British-born, classically-trained violinist who now lives in Brookline.

Paying Homage To Grappelli 

Ben Powell on violin and Tim Ryan on piano. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Ben Powell on violin and Tim Ryan on piano. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

This summer, Powell is preparing to tour in support of his latest release, "New Street," which is very much an homage to Grappelli. It requires hours of rehearsing with pianist Tim Ray. I recently had the chance to watch them work together in Ray’s Malden home. The two of them were getting down to business, but also smiled and bounced while they played. They exchanged glances and knowing nods.

The pianist teaches at Berklee College of Music and has played with a lot of jazz musicians over his career, but not many jazz violinists.

“Jazz violin is not a giant genre, compared to saxophone or piano or bass,” Ray explained. “I mean, obviously there’s lots of history, and most of the jazz musicians I play with tend to play the more traditional jazz instruments.”

And that’s one reason Ray thinks critics often compare Powell to Grappelli. But that's not to say the 50-year-old is not impressed with a musician half his age.

“And I think most listeners have the same reaction," Ray said. "The first thing they think when they hear Ben is, 'Wow, this guy can really play the fiddle.' "

But improvising over chord changes by ear is a lot different from playing a string quartet reading sheet music.

Making The Leap

“If you spend too many years trying to play things exactly as they're written, it's very hard to let go of the printed page,” said Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart. And he speaks from experience: Lockhart is a classically trained pianist, and helped Powell make the leap from classical to jazz.

The two met when Powell was 18 and a member of the National Youth Orchestra in England. Lockhart was a guest conductor and one day during rehearsal Powell made a confession: He told the maestro that he really wanted to play jazz.

“In this sort of position you come across hundreds of aspiring musicians, thousands of aspiring musicians, and often they'll want something from you,” Lockhart said. "But Ben was number one, so unassuming and number two, so terribly talented.”

So the conductor took this demo recording back to Boston and submitted it to the jazz string program at Berklee College of Music. A few months later Powell was accepted. He’s been in Boston ever since, with the exception of the first half of 2012, which he spent in Paris, Stephane Grappelli’s hometown.

Effortless And Graceful

“I was actually visiting Stephane’s apartment regularly, I befriended his partner who still owns the very place that he lived in, and learning about what he liked to do at home,” Powell explained. “He didn’t really practice the violin very much, he loved playing the piano more than anything. And it was just wonderful, but in the same way that he played the violin, just effortless and graceful.”

Powell never got to meet his hero. Grappelli died in 1997 when Powell was just 11. But if he did get that chance?

“I don’t know what I’d ask him,” Powell mused. “I’d probably want to just sit and enjoy a drink on the Seine. And we could talk about anything he wanted or I wanted. I think that’s the experience I would wish for.”

Because for Ben Powell, Stephane Grappelli says everything about music with his violin.

Ben Powell's latest CD is "New Street" and he will be performing locally throughout the fall.

This program aired on August 3, 2012.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.