Mark O’Connor has been catapulting towards musical virtuosity since he first started playing classical and flamenco guitar when he was just “a tiny little kid.” He picked up the violin at age 11 and soon caught the ear of innovative Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, who invited him to take lessons. At 17, he joined jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli’s band on guitar and soaked up the former Django Reinhardt bandmate’s teachings and stylings during two years of touring with the group.
And in 1983, O’Connor, then in his early 20s, did what many aspiring young American musicians do. He grabbed his fiddle case, waved goodbye to his native Seattle and headed for Nashville. It took a couple years for O’Connor to establish himself in Music City, but once he did, he continued his upward climb, making a name for himself as a session musician and appearing on over 400 albums.
Fiddler and composer Mark O’Connor brings his Appalachia Waltz Trio, with Gillian Gallagher on viola and Mike Block on cello, to The Paramount Theater on May 9.
What we’re listening to
"Octopus," by Syd Barrett (from The Madcap Laughs)—Barrett’s psychedelic tentacles of crazy-genius wrap themselves around your brain and don’t let go. Close your eyes to the octopus ride!
"Love In This Club," by Usher (featuring Young Jeezy, from Here I Stand)—Part dance floor shaker, park R&B confessional, part Southern rap anthem. All good.
"CCKMP," by Steve Earle (from I Feel Alright)
"Over and Over," by Hot Chip (from The Warning)
"Far, Far Away," by Wilco (from Being There)
Then, in 1989, something changed. “I was working in between takes on these solo caprices,” says O’Connor, who speaks with a patient, nuanced rhythm. “I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it just kept coming. It started accumulating, and that was my Fiddle Concerto. And this music, the idea of it, the melodies, the rhythm, the virtuosic excitement of it was just propelling me into another stage of my musical life.”
Though he had become one of the most in-demand session players in Nashville, O’Connor knew something had to give. “I either needed to get these new musical ideas out of my head and go back to being a session player, or I needed to give up session work and explore these new musical ideas,” he says. “One was going to pay the bills, and the other one wasn’t. Of course, what does an artist do? They choose the path that doesn’t pay the bills.”
The transition from session player to classical composer and performer wasn’t an easy move. “Most people thought I had literally gone off my rocker,” O’Connor says. “I really risked everything, my finances, my house, my career in Nashville. Nashville doesn’t have a place for a solo violin player, especially when he writes his own caprices.” But it didn’t take long before O’Connor, who now lives in New York City, found success in his new endeavours. His Fiddle Concerto has racked up over 200 performances to date, and in 1996 he teamed up with world-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma, and bassist and composer Edgar Meyer to release the album Appalachia Waltz.
O’Connor remembers the moment when he knew that Yo Yo Ma would likely be on board for the project. “He agreed to try it out, but there was no definite word on whether he would continue with the music or project,” he says. “We were trying to impress [him] with some of our most difficult material, so I wasn’t going to show him ‘Appalachia Waltz.’ But at some point it just occurred to me. We were sitting alone together, and I showed it to him, and he started playing it, and there was a look that came over his face while he was playing it that was very remarkable, and you could feel an adjustment, a shift in the vibe of our meeting, of everything.” A couple of weeks later, O’Connor says, Sony Classical called and asked to release an album with the waltz as the title track.
Helen Horal and other talented local strummers will play at Acoustic Mafia, Satellite’s last hurrah, on May 24.
Working with Ma and Meyer was by no means O’Connor’s only collaboration with other great American musicians. One of his favorite memories is when he first recorded with trumpet player Wynton Marsalis. “It was an arrangement that I did for trumpet and violin, and we met for a lunch meeting,” he remembers. “I had this arrangement and I showed it to him at the meeting, and we were at a Japanese restaurant in the middle of Manhattan. He looked at it and he got his trumpet out of the case and started playing it right there in the restaurant. And he said, ‘You want to go through this with me?’ and I said, ‘You mean right here?” and he said, ‘Sure.’ So we not only had a good little rehearsal to prepare for the recording, but we also got free sushi.”
On Friday, May 9, O’Connor will bring his Appalachia Waltz Trio to The Paramount Theater, and he’s excited about the current lineup, which features violist Gillian Gallagher and cellist Mike Block, both Juilliard graduates. “They bring an amazing vitality and excitement to the music, along with their technical ability,” O’Connor says. “It’s really quite satisfying and remarkable, because I remember when there was almost no one who could play this stuff with me.” In the past 15 years, O’Connor has observed a huge development in American music. “Young musicians now are feeding this whole notion that there could be a real new American string school, a new American classical music.” As he speaks, excitement resonates in O’Connor’s voice like the final vibration of a fiddle note, and, given O’Connor’s mountain of successes so far, there’s every reason to believe that his enthusiasm is spot on.
Satellite Ballroom has announced its last weekend of shows before its lease ends on May 31, and Satellite booker Danny Shea is advertising the finale as “Welcome CVS…Not!” We’re happy that we’ll get to see quite a few local groups take the venue’s stage before it is disassembled and replaced by a pharmacy counter. The Nice Jenkins, Order, Truman Sparks, The Invisible Hand and the Cinnamon Band will rock out on Thursday May 22, Beetnix, Trees on Fire and Kings of Belmont play on Friday, May 23, and Lance Brenner’s fourth C-Fest event, Acoustic Mafia, will top off the weekend on Saturday, May 24, with performances by Paul Curreri, Shannon Worrell, Andy Waldeck and The Cvillians, Helen Horal, Acoustic Groove Trio, Sarah White, Jim Waive and Morwenna Lasko & Jay Pun. The Satellite crew is still fishing for a new home, Shea tells us, but hasn’t netted one yet. We’re keeping our fingers crossed!
Making a difference
We were excited to get an e-mail from local artist Carolyn McPherson saying that our recent column on Ben Jaffe and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band inspired her to donate 20 percent of the proceeds from her upcoming show, “The Bead-Seller’s Stall: We Remember New Orleans,” to Renew Our Music, the organization that Jaffe founded to support Big Easy musicians. McPherson’s show features paintings of New Orleans from before the hurricane hit, as well as depictions of the day that Katrina made landfall. Go check it out this month at La Galeria.
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