By Ted Eschliman
February 1, 2011 - 7:15 pm
Most of you by now have probably stumbled across the mystifying chord melody prowess of Aaron Weinstein. Those fingers and pick that pack the collective skill of a virtual orchestra, pedal tone bass swapping with a Joplin-esque rag accompaniment, chords as thick and complex as a Glenn Miller chart, and a melodic journey that fears no corner of the fretboard. If you're as curious as we are (and of that, we have no doubt) you're probably wondering just what's behind the dark wavy locks and Cheshire cat smile, let alone a brain capable of genomic orchestration puzzles.
In so many ways the world is small. This grownup boy genius was once a student of a good friend of the Cafe, jazz mandolin giant Don Stiernberg, who he gives serious homage to in the interview. What's most amazing is the mandolin is only a secondary instrument. An alumnus of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, he's far better known internationally for his award-winning jazz violin skills (Illinois Fiddling Championship 1998 & 2001), touring with the likes of Bucky and John Pizzarelli, and recording with music legends like Johnny Frigo, Les Paul, Claude "Fiddler" Williams, and Frank Vignola. Most of this before his 20th birthday.
Enjoy some of the tunes as we pick his brain, and of course glean some fashion tips from the dapper dresser on proper bandstand attire. After you've picked your chin off the floor watching him play, check out the rest of the mandolin videos on his YouTube channel.
— Ted Eschliman, Author
Mandolin Cafe Contributor
Aaron Weinstein with mandolin at Birdland, New York City's famous jazz club. Photo credit: Stephen Sorokoff.
Ted Eschliman: You hail from the Chicago area, and once were a student of premier jazz mandolinist Don Stiernberg. How would you describe his influence not only on the mandolin, but your early development as a musician?
Aaron Weinstein: I was about 14 years old and started taking a real interest in jazz, learning standards and trying to improvise but I didn't really know what I was doing, and I knew it! That's the initial reason I went to Don. How lucky for me that this incredible jazz musician who happened to be a mandolinist lived one town away from me. I thought that he might be able to help me understand the jazz that I loved listening to and was trying to play and it might also be fun to learn the mandolin.
So I started mandolin lessons with Don. After each lesson I'd walk away with so many things to work on and think about and recordings to listen to that I needed time to absorb everything so we met about once a month. I remember at the very first lesson we played a tune together and then Don said something to the effect of: "we already have a Joe Venuti and a Jethro Burns and a Charlie Parker. We don't need a copycat. Figure out who you are as a musical individual and develop it." To this day, it's one of the most wonderful musical philosophies I've heard. Don was incredibly encouraging and he made me feel like I had the potential to make a positive contribution to the music world. He made me feel like I was a better musician than was actually the case at that time while also telling me what in my playing needed work.
And then there's the mandolin! He introduced me to the world of Jethro Burns and the idea that the mandolin could be a viable instrument for chord-melody playing. He showed me Jethro's brilliant chord-melody arrangements and often I'd come to the lesson with a tune and I'd watch Don create a chord melody arrangement of it on the spot. I was in awe of that and it gave me an appreciation for how well one must know the mandolin in order to be able to really play in that (chord-melody) style.
I could go on for hours talking about what Don taught me about music. Let me just say that learning from Don Stiernberg and working with the Pizzarellis may be my two most influential musical experiences—in very different but equally profound ways.
Ted Eschliman: Aside from the obvious bowing vs. picking, how do you perceive the difference to playing music with the mandolin versus the violin?
Aaron Weinstein: Well, my approach to the violin is completely different than with the mandolin. I feel that, from a functional perspective, in jazz the mandolin has far more in common with the guitar than it does with the violin.
Ted Eschliman: We are all fascinated by the finesse and flourish of your chord melody arrangements. How do you approach these, as melody with chords, or the harmonic structure first and working the melody into those chords?
Aaron Weinstein: It helps me to think of chord-melody in terms of the melody and accompaniment being two independent entities instead of the chord and the melody always being one big block voicing. There's all sorts of things you can do to add interest in the way you break up the chords or re-harmonize or work in some kind of moving bass line. There's really an endless stream of possibilities and everyone thinks differently so I'm always curious to see how other mandolinists go about this. I wish there were more folks doing it. But my approach to chord melody isn't new at all! Guitarists have been playing this way for decades. I'm just trying to catch up!
Ted Eschliman: As a follow-up to the previous question, with the mandolin being mostly a soprano instrument, how do you approach communicating the bass notes of the chord make-up in your chord melody arranging?
Aaron Weinstein: I don't think the range matters if you treat the notes appropriately. Just look at the master, J.S. Bach and the way he wrote for solo violin. It's completely self-contained. That's the gold standard.
Ted Eschliman: You studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. How were you able to balance your studies with your rigorous touring schedule and who were you playing with then?
Aaron Weinstein: Well, a lot can be done in 24 hours. For the most part, Berklee was very accommodating when I had to miss class because I was out of town performing. I went to New York a lot to play with Bucky Pizzarelli. Also Annie Ross and on Monday nights at the Iridium with Les Paul.
It was also at Berklee that I started trying to apply to the mandolin some of the techniques I heard from guitarists like Pizzarelli, Carl Kress, George Van Eps, and Howard Alden.
Aaron Weinstein in the studio with jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli. Photo credit: Alan Nahigian.
Ted Eschliman: You're pretty much based out of the New York area. Is it a challenge finding work, or do you feel well established in the upper East Coast scene?
Aaron Weinstein: Well, it helps to do a lot of different things. I play the violin and mandolin but also do a lot of arranging for other people's projects. Being a musician is not the easiest job in the world but it's one of the most fun. And if some gig comes up that I'm not completely passionate about, I remind myself that doing anything in music is better than actually working for a living.
Ted Eschliman: Do you see yourself incorporating more mandolin in your performing or is it more of a personal amusement at this point? Recordings in the future?
Aaron Weinstein: Well, during my concerts, the mandolin is always on stage with me and when I'm a sideman, it makes frequent appearances. The mandolin is my desert island instrument.
Ted Eschliman: What kind of mandolin do you play, and what do you look for in an instrument to play jazz effectively?
Aaron Weinstein: I have a Red Diamond mandolin and I love it! But I don't really think there is a specific acoustic mandolin that is best for playing jazz just like there isn't really an acoustic violin that is best for jazz or any other music. It's more about the player. Don Stiernberg is going to sound like Stiernberg whether he's playing his Monteleone or something else. I use the little purple Dunlop picks but that's more for the color—so I can find them when they fall on the floor.
Aaron on stage with his Red Diamond Mandolin at New Jersey's Jazzfest. Photo credit: Tony Mottola.
Don MacRostie's comments: Aaron owns Red Diamond Standard model #117. I have a vague memory of him purchasing it about ten years ago or more. As I remember, I was asked by a kid in the Chicago area for a mandolin, and if my memory serves me correctly he said that he was taking lessons from Don Stiernberg. Maybe even Don recommended that he check out my instruments (Ed. Note: we verified this was the case with Aaron). I don't have any original photos of Aaron's mandolin, but my instruments are very consistent in appearance so my web site photos of the Standard F would be very hard to tell apart from his. I can see two differences in the YouTube videos and those are that the later Standards have an abbreviated pickguard and only 22 frets instead of 24 like Aaron's. I'm well aware of Aaron's incredible talent and think it's great that he will be featured in an interview. I look forward to reading it.
Ted Eschliman: Tell us about your electric tuning; I understand you use CGDA. Is this better for establishing the harmonic structure?
Aaron Weinstein: It's just for a different musical color.
Ted Eschliman: Coming from outside the mandolin world looking in, what do you think mandolinists are missing out on in enjoying the instrument?
Aaron Weinstein: Well, it seems like there are so many exciting things currently happening with the mandolin and the level of virtuosity is staggering. I'm not sure that the mandolin world is missing a thing!
Main instrument: Red Diamond F style mandolin made in 2000.
String preferences: Elixir Polyweb.
Instrument case: Bobelock makes great violin/mandolin double cases which work well for me because I almost always bring both violin and mandolin to the gig.
Picks: The medium size purple Dunlop picks.
Microphone preferences: Shure KSM137 is great.
Bow tie preferences: Even more important than harmonic knowledge, wearing a bow tie is the most important part of playing good chord-melody... and no pre-tied allowed.
With Billy Stritch on piano.
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