There is a new holiday album that was released by OMAC Records that is high on my gift list, An Appalachian Christmas, by Grammy-winning violin virtuoso, composer, teacher, and recording artist Mark O’Connor. He returns to Acadiana December 13 to perform a special holiday concert at the Heymann Performing Arts Center in Lafayette.
A brilliantly original musician who has been widely heralded in the national and international media, O’Connor is my favorite virtuoso violinist aside from the late French jazz master Stéphane Grapelli, whose whimsical style revolutionized and popularized the jazz violin. Grapelli was O’Connor’s teacher and mentor. Although few can ever match Grapelli for his brilliant, smooth jazz performances, I find that O’Connor’s rich stream of scintillating and intoxicating music is a celebration of the violin’s versatility.
O’Connor has performed and recorded on numerous occasions with New Orleans’ own Wynton Marsalis, most recently in October at the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex in New York, in a concert celebrating Marsalis’s 50th birthday; O’Connor also turned 50 this year. Marsalis refers to O’Connor as “a national treasure.”
Aside from jazz violin studies with Grapelli, O’Connor’s rather unorthodox training included everything from classical to country fiddle, which is reflected in his diverse live performances and recordings. In his new holiday album, although many of the song titles are traditional (Away in a Manger, O Christmas Tree, Carol of the Bells, We Wish You a Merry Christmas), O’Connor puts together such unlikely bedfellows as Yo-Yo Ma (the most famous classical cellist of the modern age), James Taylor (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Renée Fleming (opera star), Jane Monheit (jazz singer), and Alison Krauss (bluegrass country singer and fiddler).
O’Connor has indeed created his own “language” of American music. His enthralling compositions reflect a unique style of mixing jazz, classical, swing, bluegrass, and folk. He has influenced a new generation of string players, thousands of whom practice the O’Connor Violin Method in schools nationwide. O’Connor says that he also has a deep appreciation of Louisiana’s Cajun and Zydeco music.
His special holiday concert at the Heymann Performing Arts Center in Lafayette features Jane Monheit along with O’Connor’s Hot Swing group, which captures the electricity of performances that can only be described as spectacular. The program will include original compositions and new holiday works.
I recently caught up with O’Connor and asked him about his new album and musical perspectives.
What inspired you to release your first holiday album, An Appalachian Christmas, this year? And what was your objective when selecting such uniquely different luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma, Jane Monheit, and James Taylor for the album?
I suppose my Christmas album was 35 years in waiting; that is how long I have been releasing solo albums under my own name. With 37 solo albums to my credit that feature the three general musical directions that my career includes (folk, jazz, and classical), I thought it would be perfect to have artists with me from all three areas, like bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, country singer Steve Wariner, and Metropolitan Opera star Renée Fleming, along with the others you have just mentioned.
You have given concerts with major symphony orchestras and have performed around the world. What is your connection to Lafayette, Louisiana?
I love Louisiana, and I love its culture, music, food, and history. I also love the people and have friends throughout the region. I loved playing in Lafayette about three or four years ago with my Appalachia Waltz Trio. We must have had nearly 1,000 people attend my concert. I think they are going to love Jane Monheit and my Hot Swing group.
Will you be performing any of your new recordings from your holiday album on December 13 at the Heymann Performing Arts Center?
Yes, I have two particular favorites with Jane Monheit from my new Christmas album that we must do: “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) and “Winter Wonderland.”
How did you come to know New Orleans-born star Wynton Marsalis? Have your many concerts with him focused primarily on his jazz virtuosity or his classical repertoire?
We met for the first time at the 1996 Olympic Games’ closing ceremonies in Atlanta. We were both featured in the closing celebration on the stadium field. I premiered my “Olympic Reel” there, and I always have to say it was one of my larger world premiere audiences, attendees numbering 3.5 billion in the television audience that night. Wynton and I became good friends and colleagues, appearing on each other’s recordings and so forth. I just celebrated his 50th birthday with him on a concert for PBS a few weeks ago. We mostly play jazz and swing together.
What would you say was the most memorable performance with your mentor, jazz master Stéphane Grappelli?
Well, the first time I ever played at Carnegie Hall was on tour with my mentor Stéphane Grappelli, so that was very big. The very first performance was at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and that was of course a very big thing. Also, we recorded the live album on that tour, and most of that came from our concert at the Berklee College of Music Performance Center in Boston. That was back in 1979, you know. All of these years later, I now hold my string camp there in the summer. An O’Connor Method Camp is there, as well as the O’Connor/Berklee String Summer Program.
As a virtuoso violinist, you are fluent in many vernaculars. Do you have a favorite musical genre?
My favorite by a long shot is American. I just love American music in all shapes and sizes. I connect all of our styles together not only in my career and my compositions (I have composed nine concertos now and two symphonies), but my Method for learning how to play violin, strings, and orchestra is based on this idea of inclusion. It is a great idea, and it works.
I understand you are working on a commission that includes an amalgamation of Cajun and Zydeco styles. What do you enjoy most about this indigenous Louisiana music?
One of the things I enjoy most about Cajun music in particular is that Doug Kershaw, the great Cajun fiddler, singer, and songwriter was the first person I ever heard play the fiddle! I was eight years old at the time. I love indigenous music from our country, and especially your part of the country. Michael Doucet is a good friend of mine, a great Cajun music star. And I just go nuts for that rhythm and soul of the Creole music called Zydeco.
Do you have a favorite Christmas memory tied to a special holiday song?
I think that one of the greatest things about making my Christmas album is that you get to revisit music that held so much joy and wonder for you as a child. The music brings you back; perhaps a family photo does too, but there is nothing like music to reinvent the experience that brings you to the present day with that same joy and wonder. That is what I hear when I listen to An Appalachian Christmas. How glorious the music is—both intimate and grand—there is nothing like it.