Buckley Mills,
Violin on Fire
(Chacra, 2010)

Buckley Mills takes a dozen well-known jazz and popular pieces with a jazz feel and translates that to the violin on this newly released CD. I do want to qualify this review by saying that jazz is not my typical listening genre -- I tend more toward classical, pop and symphonic rock -- but I do enjoy smooth jazz at times. That said, I accepted the offer of a free copy of this CD because I recognized most of the tunes, and because I was once a violinist.

Improvisation is an integral part of jazz, and I can appreciate it when done well. If you look at the track list, you can see where Mills uses improvisation more just by the length of the track. "I'm in the Mood for Love" is a great example where he uses it well. He takes a relatively simple melody and gracefully embellishes it to over seven minutes without ever losing the heart of the piece or making it unrecognizable. It is still, most definitely, that melody, but it is also the Buckley Mills variation of it.

With some tunes, he improvises without extending the piece much. A good example is "Ain't Misbehavin'." At just over four-and-a-half minutes, there is not much extension, but the sound is definitely not typical, with the violin holding court and the accompanying drums (Chris Brown), piano, and guitar (Pat Bergeson), and bass (Roger Spencer).

Mills does a nice job of consistently holding the original mood of a piece. If you listened to his rendition of "Sentimental Journey" and then to a more traditional version, like that of Doris Day, the emotional atmosphere created is the same.

If you read Mills' biography, you'd see that "Sweet Georgia Brown" holds a special place in his heart as it was the first piece he mastered, at the ripe old age of 3. You can tell, on this CD, that he is very comfortable with the piece, and it comes out very happy and lively.

My second most favorite, though, is the long, soulful "Georgia on My Mind." I have always liked this piece and wondered if Mills would do it justice or improvise it to death. There is plenty of improvisation, but he starts the melody in a traditional manner and often returns to the original form while always holding the mood. It is simultaneously sleepy, sad and vibrantly alive.

When I saw "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on the track list, I was startled. I do not think of that as jazz or much related to jazz. I think of the movie and Judy Garland. Then I listened to Mills' rendition and remembered that Dorothy sang it as a song of longing for home. That sounds like blues to me. With the violin clearly starring in this nice, sweet, melancholy version, Mills grabs at that sentiment and creates a piece that makes you think of all the things for which you long. It is perfect. It is the top of the list, for me, on this CD.

The album ends on a lighter, happier note, with "Blue Skies." It is a nice way to help the listener end with a smile after the nostalgia and longing that "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" evoked.

While it has been almost 35 years since an injury ended my violin-playing days, I still enjoy the sound of a well-played violin. When the instrument is not played well, you can hear both the individual bow-strokes and the bow sliding along the strings -- up-and-down instead of across -- and the sound is scratchy and always reminds of sawdust. There is none of that in this album. The music here is smooth and melodic, and I can picture Mills playing vigorously yet simultaneously effortlessly. For most of the tunes, there is a definite accompaniment background from the other instruments, but the violin is always center-stage. In some pieces, like "Rainbow," the violin clearly dominates throughout.

This one is a keeper for me.

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review by
Chris McCallister

13 February 2010

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