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Fiddler paying tribute to his hero

During his career, fiddler Mark O'Connor has forged a new American sound, finding the common thread in folk, bluegrass, jazz — and even classical music — and binding them together.

This didn't come out of a vacuum, however. Along the way, O'Connor has had many influences, particularly his hero, jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.

Appropriately, it's a tribute to his mentor that O'Connor will be coming to Ogden with his Hot Swing Trio, hot on the release of the group's new album, "In Full Swing."

"The very first time I shook his hand was when I was 13, going to a concert of his in Vancouver, British Columbia," O'Connor said during a telephone interview. "I got his autograph. But the next meeting with him was because I had just won the audition to play in his American group, to tour in 1979 on guitar. And so that's when we really established a professional relationship and a private one as a mentor and student with the violin."

O'Connor was just 17 at the time.

Although he had idolized Grappelli before working with him, O'Conner said that during that time, Grappelli became a bigger-than-life mentor. "I saw, up close, what he was able to do with music that was so personal to him but was amazed at how he was able to craft that into an art form that really communicated to the music world.

"So that idea of taking something so personal and then bringing it into the larger universe of music was unbelievable inspiration for me, and I think that's why he became my biggest violin hero."

On that first tour in 1979, the group came to Salt Lake City for a concert. O'Conner said it was particularly memorable because, outside of the Utah Symphony, the Hot Swing Trio was the first to perform in the newly built Symphony Hall (now Abravanel Hall).

O'Connor also has fond memories of swimming in the Great Salt Lake with Grappelli. "We actually went quite a ways out — I mean, really far out — three-quarters of a mile or something.

"And, you know, he was 71 years old at the time. So he just had this incredible energy. It was like he was outpacing me as a kid."

O'Connor said he also has special memories of Ogden. "Ogden was the site of a major fiddle contest win for me when I was a teenager. I believe I was 16, a year before I went to play with Stephane Grappelli."

After Grappelli passed away in 1997, O'Connor joined with guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Burr for a series of tribute concerts to memorialize Grappelli. Burr, he said, played with Grappelli for the last 12 years of Grappelli's career. And Vignola is "an absolute virtuoso and master of acoustic guitar that certainly brings the genius of Djengo Rheinhardt to mind."

One of these tribute concerts — recorded live in New Jersey — turned into the "Hot Swing!" CD, released in 2001. "It wasn't recorded with the intention of becoming a CD, and it was simply because I liked that recording of that night so much that I released it on CD. So there wasn't the normal effort of going into the production of a CD, where you'd record more than one night, pick the best of each night, the normal process. It was almost like I was bootlegging myself. And I did it on my own label. And it was sort of like an aside project, just for fun, just to let people know if they're interested — this interesting element that has happened in my career."

The first CD turned out to be so popular that O'Connor followed it up with "In Full Swing," recently released on Sony label. O'Connor said that he wanted to "up the ante" on the new CD, so he brought trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and vocalist Jane Monheit on board.

Although Marsalis and Monheit will not be accompanying the Hot Swing Trio in Ogden, O'Connor said he will be drawing from both albums, along with a couple of new pieces he'll throw in, which "easily stretch the swing style to encompass more, which will be a little surprise for the audience."


If you go

What: Mark O'Connor and his Hot Swing Trio

Where: Browning Center for the Performing Arts, Weber State University

When: 7:30 p.m., March 8

How much: $12 and $15

Phone: 1-435-626-8500

Web: www.weber.edu/


E-MAIL: rcline@desnews.com