Ask him any question except “What’s your favorite kind of music?” As anyone who has seen him in concert can attest, his talent is matched by a kind of confident good nature that once spurred the Ann Arbor News to write “If he didn’t come across as so nice, he’d be a little scary.” When a musician is as likely to be found playing a ferocious set of reels in some dark pub in Ireland as he is likely to be found trading licks with a saxophonist at a hip New York City jazz club – and he is occasionally even seen doing such apparently odd-ball things as exploring Indian classical music on stage at Carnegie Hall – one starts to wonder: what it is that drives him?
Whatever the source of his inspiration may be, it has led to a dizzying heap of accomplishments and opportunities, one of which is his recent inclusion as a full-time member of the Grammy award-winning Turtle Island Quartet. Just prior to joining TIQ, Kittel was earning his masters degree in jazz performance at the Manhattan School of Music and skipping town on weekends to perform across the country alongside fiddle legends Mark O’Connor and Darol Anger. He’s won multiple U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Championships, a total of six Detroit Music Awards for both folk and jazz, and has released three highly acclaimed solo CDs. Upon graduating at age twenty from the University of Michigan Music of School, he was awarded the Stanley Medal, their highest honor. And then there’s his extensive performance history: venues such as the Kennedy Center, Milwaukee Irish Fest, Detroit Jazz Festival, and “A Prairie Home Companion” as a bandleader, and the Detroit Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, and Rochester Philharmonic as featured orchestral soloist. Impressive, perhaps, but it does little to shed light on the source of his inspiration.
However, a brief listening to Kittel’s most recent album, “Chasing Sparks,” (on Compass Records), may offer some clues. Recorded over the course of two years in no less than four different cities – New York, Nashville, San Francisco, and Kittel’s home town of Ann Arbor, MI – one might expect the music within to lurch from one style to the next in a kind of overt demonstration of his musical adventures. But actually, there is an uplifting fluidity to the sound of the music on this disc, thanks not in least to contributions by some of the most creative and highly-regarded acoustic musicians around. Macarthur “Genius” bassist/composer Edgar Meyer is here, as well as mandolinist Chris Thile of “Nickel Creek” and “Punch Brothers” fame. Multi-instrumentalist wizard Mike Marshall (formerly of the David Grisman Quintet) also makes an appearance, as does the auspicious cello-fiddle duo of sisters Natalie and Brittany Haas (Alasdair Fraser, Crooked Still).
But the core musicians on “Chasing Sparks” are Kittel’s own bandmates, who shine throughout and, somehow, manage to share quite a bit of common musical ground with him. Guitarist Kyle Sanna, who appears on almost every track, possesses a knack for musical balance that recently led cellist nonpareil Yo-Yo Ma to hire him as an arranger for his 2008 Sony Classical recording. Cellist Tristan Clarridge is a member of bluegrass sensation Crooked Still and is actually a three-time National Fiddle Champion himself. And cosmopolitan drummer Bodek Janke (he’s fluent in five languages) lends deep, visceral grooves with echoes of Africa, India, and Eastern Europe. Each track is woven with earthy, Celtic-inspired melodies; sometimes as a jumping-off point for intricate compositions; other times inducing heady improvisations; still other times maintaining a simpler, more traditional feel. And always, bounding above the expansive textures that pervade the album, is the utterly searing optimism of Kittel’s violin, possessing a tone that perhaps can do more to answer the question of what inspires him than words could ever do.
What to expect from Jeremy’s classes at CSW this year:
At the 2010 Creative Strings Workshop, I’ll be teaching a range of string styles including Scottish and Irish fiddling, Jazz, Blues, and more. We’ll be working on Celtic tunes and learning the ornamentation and groove techniques that make it authentic. We’ll be learning to improvise compelling melodies throughout changing chords. We’ll delve into the “languages” of jazz and blues as I teach proven methods for applying these styles to the violin naturally, effectively, and soulfully. I have a strong classical background, and I’ll be referring to technical matters in detail throughout my classes, but ultimately I believe the best music we can make in life transcends technique and even instrument – so we will be exploring the big picture also. I’m very excited to meet everyone at this year’s workshop, which no doubt will have many amazing moments.