Mads Tolling is an internationally renowned violinist, violist, and composer, and is also a member of the two time Grammy Award-Winning Turtle Island Quartet. Originally from Copenhagen, Denmark, Tolling spends time playing for Stanley Clarke’s touring band, as well as fronting his own group – the Mads Tolling Quartet. Yotam Rosenbaum had a chance to talk with him. Enjoy!

An Exclusive Interview with Mads Tolling (click here for the audio)

Yotam Rosenbaum: Hello, this is Yotam Rosenbaum and today I’m talking with Mads Tolling, a jazz violin player, double Grammy award winner and a member of the Turtle Island quartet, a string quartet that plays jazz, the group has been around for 25 years now. Mads also, in the past, toured with Stanley Clarke and, these days, he leads his own jazz quartet, which he will tell us more about. But first, Mads, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself, tell us where you’re from and how did you end up playing jazz on the violin?


Mads Tolling: I grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark; grew up playing violin from the age of 6 years old and was a good boy and played classical music for the most of my young years. And when I was 14, 15 years old, I started listening a lot to Mose Davis, got attracted to playing jazz and rock’n’roll and Latin music, those types of styles, and always was interested, at a pretty young age, of seeing how the violin could fit into that type of music. And I started listening to some of the people that inspired me in Denmark, including Svend Asmussen and Stéphane Grappelli, the French violinist, and Jean Luc Ponty, and figuring out how you can actually do those on the violin. And that was, sort of, the breakthrough for me and about 17-18, just going to high school, and basically, just, figuring out how to play music like that on my violin. And when I was 20 years old I got accepted at Berklee College of Music, where I study with some great musicians, including Joe Lovano and JoAnne Brackeen, just some of my heroes growing up. And right out of school I basically, even before then, I actually jumped on stage and jammed with Jean-Luc Ponty, he’s a great French jazz violinist, and he recommended me to Stanley Clarke, which, sort of, was my first really big professional gig. I started playing with him when I was 20 years old and after that, right out of school, I actually got into a group called Turtle Island Quartet. And what Turtle Island Quartet is really, is two violins, and a viola and a cello. But playing anything but what you’d expect, say, configurations of play, because it’s not really about Mozart and Haydn, it’s really about playing Chick Corea and Mose Davis. Our latest album is actually music of Jimmy Hendrix. So we really run the gamut in that group and really play a lot of different styles; I used to play viola with that group, and now I’m playing violin and it’s been going, for me, for over seven years, the group itself has actually been together for 25 years. So, it’s been going for a long, long time.




Yotam Rosenbaum: Oh, wow, 25 years for any band to stick together is quite an accomplishment. So during the seven years that you’ve been with the Turtle Island Quartet, the group has won two Grammy awards. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Mads Tolling: When I first joined Turtle Island Quartet, in 2003, they were actually just about to record their, as me being in the group, our first album on a label called Telarc, and I recorded with them, in 2004, with Turtle Island, an album called “4+ Four”, that we did… actually the music was written for a string quartet, so we did some interesting tunes including Darius Millhaud’s “Creation of the World”; we did an original piece by one of the founders of Turtle Island, David David Balakrishnan called “Mara’s Garden of False Delights”; we did a piece by The Beatles, called “Because”, and so that one actually earned us a Grammy nomination in 2006. And we actually ended up winning that whole category in 2006 for Best Classical Crosser album, that year, which was very fortunate, given the fact that Jess joined the group, I mean, like, literally a half year before we recorded that, so good fortune there. And then two years later we recorded another album on Telarc, it was the music of John Coltrane, legacy of John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme” where we, sort of, played through that mac and opus of John Coltrane’s and that one also won a Grammy and that was in 2008. So, those two years were, sort of, the good charm years, the good luck years for us with the Grammys. And, of course, now, in 2011, the classical crossover album has been eliminated, so…


Yotam Rosenbaum: Yeah, many musicians are not very happy about that.


Mads Tolling: Right.


Yotam Rosenbaum: So would you say that winning the Grammys was a big game changer for the group? Did it affect sales and gigs?


Mads Tolling: Those were some pretty good years, but I think I would mainly contribute that to the better economy back then than now. I think it’s good, it gives a little bit of a buzz, it’s not, like, if you’re winning, like, if you’re U2 and winning the Grammy for the year, you’re on TV and you get tons of publicity out. I mean, the classical and jazz Grammys are not as well publicized given that there’s no TV running while that’s going on. But it certainly that gets out there, and people write about it, and talk about it and it’s something that you’ll always have on your resume, you know – you know, winning a Grammy – I know so many amazing musicians, famous musicians, that actually never won, they may have been nominated, but never won, and it doesn’t always makes sense, but nonetheless it’s a very cool thing to have.


Yotam Rosenbaum: Yeah, for sure. So, these days you’re leading your own jazz quartet, the Mads Tolling Quartet, and you have some upcoming shows in the Bay area. Why don’t you tell our listeners, especially the ones in the region, some information about those shows?


Mads Tolling: Right, yeah, so the first show is on Monday, July 25th, in Redwood City, it’s called ‘Jazz in Maine’ and it’s from 6 to 8 pm, in an outside stage there. We played it last year and it’s kind of like a cozy scene there outside, a lot of music, a lot of restaurants and people out in the scene there. So that’s – even though Redwood City isn’t known for exactly the hopping nightlife – I think people will still find it really refreshing to see live music in that space. And then, after that, we’re actually playing just three days after, we’re playing up in Novato, at a place called Pacific Smokehouse, which is a pretty new venue, it’s a big restaurant in a big complex there, where they have a stage. And we’re playing there 8.00 pm and that’s the 28th, that’s Saturday, as far as my math is correct. And our biggest show will be on August 14th, which is the San Jose Jazz Fest; we’re playing on a Smith Dobson tribute stage, at 6:00 pm, that day. And San Jose Jazz still is a great scene, there’s so many great musicians coming through there this year, so we’ll be happy to play there with the quartet.


Yotam Rosenbaum: That’s great, so before we say goodbye, let’s listen together to one of your tunes from your latest release “Star Maker Machinery”. Can you explain a little bit about the name and the tune?


Mads Tolling: Yeah, “Star Maker Machinery” is, despite the title, which I think Johnny Mitchell wrote its I’m not sure if the song was in that tide, but it was definitely in the lyrics, but despite that it’s actually a piece that I wrote to John McLaughlin, that he actually, also, listened to and liked, apparently, he was very into the music, he said it brought him back in time. So, yeah, this is a piece that I wrote, written for the quartet. So, please enjoy.


Yotam Rosenbaum: Mads Tolling, thank you very much for joining us today and talking to us.


Mads Tolling: You bet your time. Thanks.


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