Saturday, July 2, 2016

Svend Asmussen's 100th Birthday

On June 28 my daughter turned three years old, and on that same day legendary Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen celebrated 100 years on earth, a whole century devoted to his first love—jazz, particularly of the swing variety. Though not very well known in the U.S., Asmussen, who was born in Copenhagen into a wealthy family in 1916, is one of a handful of stellar jazz violinists, a group that also includes Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, and Stephane Grappelli (incidentally, Asmussen recorded with the latter two). Perhaps one of the reasons why Asmussen is largely overlooked this side of the pond is that he didn't appear in the States too often, but even so, he did earn the respect and admiration of jazz greats like Duke Ellington, John Lewis, and Benny Goodman, with all of whom he worked at some point in his long career. Asmussen showed an interest in music as a kid, and Venuti was actually an early influence on the violin. Yet a career in show business wasn't what his affluent parents had planned for him; however, the lure of the stage was too strong, and Asmussen decided to quit the dentistry degree he'd half-heartedly begun in order to concentrate on playing jazz professionally.  He made his first recordings in the 1930s, and in the sixty years that followed, he never looked back, recording regularly and steadily until health problems related to his advanced age forced him into retirement early in the new century.

To commemorate his 100th anniversary, Storyville Records has just released a 5-CD box set entitled The Incomparable Fiddler Svend Asmussen: 100 Years, which offers a panoramic view of his astounding career, from his earliest sides of the '30s, '40s, and '50s to recordings he made in 1996 in a quartet setting. The set showcases Asmussen's dazzling virtuosity on the violin, his unique sense of swing, and his elegant delivery, and finds him in the company of talented confrères like Ulrik Neumann, Svend Hauberg, Georges Arvanitas, and of course, Stuff and Stephane. The 1964-65 sessions with Grappelli are among the many highlights of the box, and four rare recordings with Smith from 1966 show the two of them jamming together and really having a blast. Also included is a DVD that features a 1986 live date at Copenhagen's Jazzhus Montmartre with Kenny Drew on piano, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums, which offers us a chance to see Asmussen in action. This new box set is definitely the perfect place to get an introduction to the incomparable legacy of Svend Asmussen, a man whose passion—and business, as the title of one of his classic sides states—is rhythm. Thanks for all the great music and happy century, Mr. Asmussen!

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