Jazz is the bleu cheese of popular music. It's robust, complex, sophisticated, and, as any good cheese, often smells like a dead man's feet. When you're talking jazz violin, the line between sweet & sour is thin; no frets or classical positions to rely on and four delicate strings so responsive and elastic it's a miracle a few straight notes are ever voiced. Plus you're improvising. It's like dancing in a swamp, and you better be damn good.
And Stéphane Grappelli was all kinds of good. More importantly, he was brave, and understood not just trad jazz but the art of spontaneity. He'd learned it the hard way busking in France, swinging and bopping his way to the top, paying his dues, and becoming one of the finest stringmen in the world. Some think of Grappelli as "gypsy music", though he is nothing of the sort. This is one of his earliest records proper as a solo artist (a sort of comeback for him after a dry spell) backed-up by the smokin' trio of piano great Mo Vander, double-bassist Pierre Michelot, and Baptiste Reilles' skins. The 1956 issue consists largely of standards, and Sinatra never did 'Lady is a Tramp' like this.
As a young jazz listener, I wasn't much partial to standards. I found them, well, boring. But here the beauty and possibilities of a quality tune is abundantly clear, the opportunity to to alter, even destroy and rebuild a good ditty, never more glorious. Grappelli's bluenotes curl around melodies and pull them into malleable phrases of giddy delight and musical wonder, as on 'Fascinatin Rhythm' with its sudden modulations and stuttering pace. Contemplative and slightly sad 'Dans la Vie', lively 'Cheek to Cheek', tightly-swung 'Taking a Chance on Love' with Grappelli all over the neck and Mo Vander starting to come out.
For '56 this is a lovely recording, levels for 'S'Wonderful' spot-on and Baptiste Reilles showing why he was considered the best brusher in the business. More Gershwin Bros. with 'Someone to Watch Over Me' sporting a misplaced harpsichord, bright-eyed and bushytailed 'If I Had You', sublime ruminations of 'Body and Soul' and frantic whirling of 'I Want to be Happy' where these boys just let it go. Utterly heartsick 'Shes Funny That Way' takes us along with two lovers walking & shopping in Paris, and 'Time After Time' allows us to peek into their intimacy later that night.
The historic session wraps with a hot-bop treatment of Cole Porter's 'Just One of Those Things' and a few alternate takes. If you're ready for Grappelli and what is possible from a good jazz violinist, he's ready for you and always will be-- hanging in time, waiting patiently for you to discover his elegant magic.