- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

NEW YORK — Guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli says he doesn’t listen to many of the demo tapes offered to him by aspiring jazz musicians. However, at the urging of his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, he played the disc sent in by jazz violin prodigy Aaron Weinstein and was so impressed, he called the teenager that night.

“We put it on, and we were like, wow, this guy’s really talented,” Mr. Pizzarelli says in a telephone interview. “He played good songs and played them in the right style and had a good command of the instrument. It didn’t sound like a classical guy trying to play the violin. He actually sounded like a jazz player.”

Mr. Weinstein, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, started out studying old-time fiddle music at age 8. In 1998, the 13-year-old became the youngest person ever to win the overall title at the Illinois State Fiddle Championship.

Shortly afterward, however, his interest in jazz was awakened when he found a cassette recorded by Joe Venuti, the first prominent jazz violinist, in his parents’ record collection.

“‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ was the first tune that I heard,” Mr. Weinstein recalls. “Venuti came in playing, and his attack on the violin was such a powerful sound. … It was the first jazz on the violin that I heard, and it was like … what have I been missing.”

Jazz violinists remain a rare commodity even though the instrument has been heard on jazz recordings dating to the 1920s, when Mr. Venuti began his career. What makes Mr. Weinstein even rarer is that he doesn’t play contemporary jazz but prefers the swing style of the 1930s and ‘40s.

The 20-year-old violinist has been welcomed eagerly into the fold by seasoned jazz masters such as guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, John’s father, and tenor saxophonist Houston Person, both of whom performed on his debut album, “A Handful of Stars,” recorded last year. John Pizzarelli, three years after hearing Mr. Weinstein’s demo, played on several tracks, singing as well as playing guitar on the tender ballad “Let’s Get Lost.”

Mr. Weinstein opens the album with a fast-tempo romp through “After You’ve Gone,” a tune dating back to 1918. He finds nothing incongruous about a young musician playing such old tunes.

“So many of the songs written in that era are so rich as far as melody and harmony,” he says. “Just because they were written so long ago doesn’t mean you can’t do anything new with them.”

Mr. Weinstein says he likes listening to contemporary jazz, but his heart’s not into playing it. He says older listeners often ask him why he enjoys playing music from their childhood.

“I say, ‘It’s because it’s music from my childhood, too,’ ” says Mr. Weinstein, seated in the empty Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel several hours before he is to perform.

“For me, it’s that sense of swing that drove the big-band era. It’s dance music … that makes people smile and have a good time,” says Mr. Weinstein, who is attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music on a full talent-based scholarship.

That evening, the dark-haired Mr. Weinstein, dressed in a grey pinstriped suit and wearing round tortoise-shell glasses, switches between violin and mandolin as he accompanies vocalist Samantha Sidley, a fellow Berklee student, on such standards as “Squeeze Me” and “He’s a Tramp.”

Mr. Weinstein credits his parents, in the audience that night, with fostering his interest in music. Although not musicians themselves — his father is a lawyer and his mother an English teacher — they played all styles of music from folk to jazz at home.

At New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., Mr. Weinstein founded a trio that he named after violinist Stephane Grappelli, who with Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt led the legendary Quintet of the Hot Club of France in the 1930s. In 2002, Mr. Weinstein’s trio was chosen the nation’s best high school instrumental jazz group by Downbeat magazine.

Mr. Weinstein says he found “validation” for his chosen path when veteran musicians such as Bucky Pizzarelli, who had played with both Mr. Venuti and Mr. Grappelli, began inviting him to sit in at their gigs. Bucky Pizzarelli also included him in a four-violin section on the 2003 Arbors Records CD “Legends,” one of pianist Skitch Henderson’s last recordings.

Just before graduating from high school, Mr. Weinstein got permission to tour with guitarist Frank Vignola’s Hot Club USA combo. After one show, the band’s drummer, Joe Ascione, gave him advice that changed his musical approach: “Good players copy, but the great players steal.”

Mr. Weinstein realized that rather than copy Mr. Grappelli or other violinists, he would be better served by stealing the distinctive elements that made their sound attractive — Mr. Venuti’s aggressive attack, Mr. Grappelli’s flowing lines and lyrical approach, Stuff Smith’s rhythmic sense and Svend Asmussen’s harmonic innovativeness — and incorporating them into his own style.

Last year, Arbors Records President Mat Domber made the violinist the youngest artist to record for his traditional jazz label. Mr. Weinstein produced “A Handful of Stars” himself, doing everything from choosing the musicians to writing the arrangements.

On familiar standards, Mr. Weinstein tried to add something new — for instance, playing the seldom-heard verse on “Pennies From Heaven” or overdubbing multiple violin parts on “Swingtime in the Rockies.” He also included more obscure tunes such as the ballad “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Disney’s “Cinderella.”

Mr. Weinstein says he has taken some advice from Mr. Pizzarelli to heart — that you have to “sell” the songs to your audience.

“I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with making a record of happy music,” he says. “Not everything needs to be esoteric just because it’s jazz.”

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