An Interview with the Grammy Award-winning Danish violinist Mads Tolling in California.

Hello! I am Norie and a U.S. dedicated guest writer. I have lived in California since 2007. I interviewed the Grammy Award-winning Danish violinist Mads Tolling, who is mainly active in Denmark and the U.S. The interview took place at the “Groove Yard” record shop in Oakland, where a certain world famous novelist from Japan also visits. Please enjoy your encounter with Mr. Mads Tolling.


image:Mads Tolling Official Website | Grammy Award-Winning Violinist | Mads Tolling Quartet | Turtle Island Quartet.

Norie: Please tell the readers about yourself.

Mads: My name is Mads Tolling, and I am from Copenhagen, Denmark, born and raised, over there. I started playing the violin when I was 6 years old. I lived in Denmark until I was about 20 years old. I mainly started out with the Suzuki method and got into the classical music. Eventually I got into jazz, and that sort of really became my main focus from the age of 16. I started to really get into improvisation and learning about that on the violin, which is a little bit unusual; you don’t normally see that in the string world. I went to a great high school, a music high school over in Copenhagen.

After high school, I eventually moved to Boston, Berklee College of Music and studied there for three years. I got my kind of formal education, if you will, earning my Bachelors degree there. A little bit before I graduated, I actually got a recommendation from Jean-Luc Ponty, the French violinist, to join Stanley Clarke’s band, and then I moved out here to San Francisco where I live now.

I was in the Monk Institute for about a couple of months, outside of Los Angeles. I got into that, run by some incredible musicians Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard. So I was really on that sort of path, getting into contemporary jazz, that has always been my focus. However, I ended up leaving that and actually going to San Francisco and joining Turtle Island Quartet in 2003. Around the same time I moved to San Francisco, I started touring with Stanley. It was a very intense touring situation for me; I was probably gone about half the year on the road, touring around doing a lot of international touring as well in Europe. South America, Australia, South Africa. That sort of kept me busy; then, about two years ago, I decided I was going to leave Turtle Island Quartet. I played with Stanley until 2010, and with Turtle Island through 2012.

In the last, I would say couple of years, I was really trying to focus on that and develop new collaborations with different singers, and you have seen one of those. I have done stuff with the pianist and different percussionists. I am going to compose for the Oakland-East Bay symphony orchestra, and am writing a piece for Del Sol string quartet, a modern classical music. I also write big band for violin, for that big band down in San Jose called “Nineteen”. I wrote for them and played some of my music last year, so yeah, it’s really kind of opened up an opportunity for me to collaborate and do a lot of different projects I didn’t really have time for earlier. Turtle Island Quartet was obviously great, a wonderful group that I was part of, that earned a couple of Grammies, and really great concepts I learned, a lot of concepts. I’ve learned to integrate a lot of different styles into the string quartet, including jazz, fiddle music and Latin music and music from around the world.

Norie: What led you to learn the violin?

Mads: My mom was actually the one who started my sister and me. We started at the same time, I was 6, and she was 5. We got up early in the morning, about 6 am, and practiced a little bit before school. My mom would play the keyboard, and we would play violin. We started with the Suzuki method, we went to some camps, and actually met with Mr. Suzuki in Sweden in the Suzuki camp. He was probably 91 years old. The Suzuki method I found was a wonderful way to start because you get to use your ears a lot and you become part of a community at an early age. You can play with other people at an early age, which really is great when you’re starting out. You do not get discouraged by not knowing anybody, by being so isolated, so connecting with the scene at that point was probably pretty crucial.

Norie: Is it popular for kids to learn the violin in Denmark?

Mads: Yeah, it’s popular. My sense is that it is popular to learn a musical instrument, period. You know simply that lots of kids do because people know the importance of learning another language, mastering being creative, and using your ears. People are sort of aware of that over there, so a lot of people start. Everybody knows about jazz and classical music. Obviously, with Carl Nielsen being Danish, we have a strong background in classical music. Also jazz is big; if you go to Denmark, there are so many jazz clubs.

Norie: When you were a member of Turtle Island Quartet, it earned the 2006 and 2008 “Best Classical Crossover” Grammy for “4+Four” and “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane”. At what point did you first become interested in playing jazz violin?

Mads: Well, obviously, it is not something you just do; it is kind of a lifelong pursuit. My pursuit started when I was 14, in Thailand. When I was a kid, we were traveling around the world with my parents for seven months because they wanted to take us on a trip and show us how other people lived. We mainly traveled in not industrialized countries, some developing nations, so we went to Thailand and my dad give me a bootleg tape of a Miles Davis recording. That was my first experience listening to jazz, I was really drawn to it, I was really into the sound. Then at a later point I realized a connection, I could do it with my violin, because I started to listen to (French violinist) Stephane Grappelli and (Danish violinist) Svend Asmussen, who is 98 years old now, a contemporary of Stephane Grappelli.

I think my main reason for that is, I love the sound of it, I love the freedom. I love the chamber setting of it, you know. You have a smaller group who are easily communicating freely on stage. For me, it is a matter of, how do you get the message across to an audience. It can always be a little bit of a challenge in jazz, because sometimes you have to be careful not to just play to yourself but make sure you are playing in front of an audience and engaging with them. So those are some of the things that really inspire me to keep playing.


Norie: Who is your favorite musician in Denmark and Scandinavia?

Mads: There is a Swedish pianist called Lars Jansson, who is the guy I grew up listening to and is just really a beautiful player. He has a kind of Nordic sound which I guess is a little bit tricky to describe. The best way is, sounding like someone is playing from a mountain top somewhere in Norway. It has a sort of beautiful open sound to it.

Of course people have heard of Garbarek. Jan Garbarek, who played with Keith Jarrett, the saxophone player from Norway, so he started this movement (of Nordic jazz). Garbarek is another guy who inspired me. Also Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen, the guy who wrote the arrangement for, “I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro”. He is a guy I enjoy listening to. He played in Oscar Peterson’s Trio for many years and he’s been passed away now for many years, but he was just one of the guys that played bass in just an incredible virtuosic way, but also had a very soulful way, and lyrical. He made a lot of arrangements of a lot of Danish folk songs, children’s songs, and integrated them into his repertoire. I just like that concept because when you fine-tune that, the general audience will know and relate to it over there. You’re playing the tunes that people know, but in a different way. That’s what he was really a master at, so he is a great Danish bass player basically.

Svend Asmussen, whom I mentioned earlier, he is 98, now, comes from a totally different generation. He played with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, people from another generation, just a wonderful kind of swingy fiddler violinist. (I was) inspired by him, for sure.


Norie: Since moving to the U.S., you have been performing with many artists here, as well as active as a string instructor. Have you enjoyed the collaboration with U.S. musicians, and are there any musicians from Japan with whom you would like to play together in the future?

Mads: Yes, I have enjoyed collaborating with obviously everybody in my band, my quartet who are U.S.musicians, Erik Garland on drums, Dave MacNab on guitar, and Sam Bevin on bass. Yeah, it’s cool, everybody I come across here has a very (high motivation). I think in America to make a living as a musician, you’ve got to have a burning desire. There isn’t funding, like I’m used to in Denmark, where there is funding for the arts, and usually there is a certain fee which you are supposed to get paid, but in America there is no set fee, there is no or very little public funding, so the people that I met and collaborate with here are totally engaged. They have a burning desire to play music,

Yeah it’s been great to play with Stanley Clarke, being in his band was a great entryway into the professional life. That was really my first professional gig. When Stanley introduced me onstage, he would add to that number for each show we played (second gig, third gig…). When we played at concert it was funny.

Turtle Island Quartet was obviously my having a chance to learn from the best and understand what it means to not only play music but also logistical aspects of making a tour happen successfully and promotionally. Some things you learn from the people you already know and it was great.

(Regarding) Japan, we had been talking about Hiromi. I went to school with Hiromi at the Berklee College of Music; she would be great to play with. She came into Stanley Clarke’s band right after I left, so I was overlapping a little bit. I was on his album The Toys of Men. We were in school at exactly the same time. Makoto Ozone is also a fabulous pianist, so I think you know that, at Berklee College of Music, there are a lot of Japanese musicians, it is the type of music that, in Japan, I know is very popular.

Norie: I hope you will come to Tokyo Jazz Festival in the future and play with them.

Mads: Yeah I was supposed to go there with Stanley’s band I think in 2006, but I had a conflict with Turtle Island Quartet, I was trying to juggle two things.

Norie: Yes, I think Stanley Clarke’s band has been several times to Japan.

Mads: Yeah, he plays the Blue Note when he goes there. Yes, I am sure down the road eventually my path will be going through Japan. Another thing I have going is, I am a Yamaha artist. They sponsor me, and they are sponsoring educational events. I play their Silent Violin series. When I need electric violin I play on those. They have been great to work with, they are very conscientious about educational outreach programs, and that’s really big for me, being a violin instructor.

Norie: What would you like to tell people though your music?

Mads: Music is human expression. With music you can communicate what you feel and you get to tell your story to people from all kinds of different backgrounds. Instead of using words, you get to use the sounds your instrument can make and you communicate with the other musicians, who are your friends. It is very exciting and a lot of fun!


Norie: Your second CD “The Playmaker”, released in 2007, includes the Danish folk song: “I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro”. Is this well-known among people in Denmark? What is this song about?

Mads: Yes, it is very well known. It is probably a song that pretty much everybody knows. It’s one you normally sing in high school or earlier on, from when you’re about seven or so, elementary school, middle school. It’s a folk song, but it actually has some lyrics written by a very famous Danish poet (Fritz Andersen, 1864). His lyrics, along with this folk song that nobody actually knows who wrote, an anonymous composer, has become not a national anthem but similar. So when I do that song, every Danish person will know it, but they won’t necessarily know this version, because it was made in sort of a jazzy chord, while still retaining the folk song melody and vibe. It’s a nice one to play, it ties in with my concept of songs people know but playing a different way, in violin, not expected, but it is a beautiful melody.

Norie: Oh yeah, I love it.

Mads: Hopefully we’ll play that in Japan!

Norie: It means the “peaceful forest”?

Mads: Yes! Actually I was playing it in Washington D.C. and there was a Japanese gentleman who came up to me and said that he got very emotional. He really liked that one too. Maybe there is some connection there, Danish and Japanese.

Please Enjoy “Peaceful forest” I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro played by Mads Tolling.

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Norie: What setting or activity makes you feel the most “hyggelig?” (Hyggelig means cozy in Danish!)

Mads: Well, when I think of some place hyggelig I think of my parent’s home.

Norie: Are your parents in Denmark?

Mads: Yes. You know, other places I grew up, living room, when your family is together, you are just hanging out by the fireplace, having a good time, to me that’s hyggelig. Something very close to home, And I will say my home here, in Albany, California, close to San Francisco, is very Danish-inspired; I have some Danish furniture, some Danish design. So I try to make my home as hyggelig as possible. (Regarding activity), I do not know, activity, no activity really, relaxation. Unfortunately, I have not been able to relax too much lately. I have lots of stuff going on, so whenever you can you just hang out with friends and family, to me, that’s hyggelig.

Norie: Please give a message to your fans in Japan

Mads: I want to say thank you for the support and checking me out here in Hyggelig News. I think it’s great that you’re incorporating Danish culture into your own culture. Cross culture I think is something we need more of. I do think there is a connection; when you look at art and culture in Japan and Denmark, I think we have a similar minimalist enjoyment of art that we kind of share. I do connect with Japan in those ways, design and architecture. I just hope that I can get over there and have a chance to play for you and maybe in the future, we’ll have some nice hyggelig moments in Japan and on stages around world.

Norie: Thank you very much.

Mads. Absolutely, you’re welcome.

image:With Rick, owner of Groove Yard

How was the interview to you?

I discovered that the children in Denmark are well supported culturally to learn music, and I learned about some world-famous musicians from Denmark. Also, music is a wonderful communication with people who have different backgrounds.

Please go and check out Mads Tolling at his live performance when you have opportunities. I am certain that you are able to spend Hyggelig moments!

Mads Tolling Official Website