Interview: Jazz Mandolinist Aaron Weinstein

Aaron Weinstein leads one of those “only in New York City” sort of existences. After all, there aren’t too many cities that can support a full-time jazz violinist. Weinstein can typically be spotted onstage at the clubs, dressed to the nines (with requisite bow tie) accompanying singer Linda Lavin one day, or guitar great Bucky Pizzarelli the next. His playing goes beyond the violin, though. In his quest to become a better jazz musician, Weinstein took lessons with jazz mandolin great Don Stiernberg (who himself learned from the legendary Jethro Burns), which changed his thinking about music and, of course, also turned him into a fine mandolin player. He can play with the very best, he’s hilarious (just watch this video of him talking to ‘veteran agent Mel Howard’) and his YouTube channel keeps filling up with incredible chord melody demonstrations on the mandolin.

Fretboard Journal: We first found out about you through your mandolin videos, but we also know you have a deep background as a violinist. Where did it all start?

Aaron Weinstein: My interest in playing jazz on the violin came from hearing a record of Joe Venuti, one of the great jazz violinists, when I was about 12 or 13. And shortly thereafter I found out about Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith. I started trying to play the music without really knowing how to play the music or anything about chords or theory… or what improvisation actually means in musical terms. But I was listening to a lot of records and I was trying to approximate what they were doing.

At a certain point, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to get some feedback. I thought the best people to ask were my favorite musicians. I made a little demo tape and sent it to my favorite players who are still alive, like John and Bucky Pizzarelli. And they actually responded! It was the beginning of a really exciting musical relationship. Bucky Pizzarelli taught me most of what I know about what it means to be a jazz musician.

FJ: When you sent these demos out, were you already a noted violinist? How far along were you?

AW: I was about 16 at the time, still going to high school, spending massive amounts of time alone in my bedroom listening to recordings and playing along with them. And playing with some local jazz musicians. As far as musical guidance – with the exception of Don Stiernberg, who is a great jazz mandolin player who happened to live one town over from me – I was basically on my own to figure things out.

FJ: When did you start taking lessons from Don?

AW: Originally I was looking for a jazz violin teacher. This is before I knew that jazz is not instrument specific, it’s a language you can play on any instrument. I had trouble finding one. Don played the mandolin and the mandolin is close to the violin, in theory; it’s tuned the same, in fifths. So I figured I’d get jazz mandolin lessons if I couldn’t get jazz violin lessons. That started with Don in high school.

FJ: Was that your introduction to a fretted instrument?

AW: There was that whole set of things about a fretted instrument – how to hold a pick, chords, etcetera – all those things I didn’t think about as a violinist. Don was great about all that. He introduced me to the music of Jethro Burns and specifically the idea that Jethro put into the use of chord melody on the mandolin.

FJ: For those who don’t know, what exactly is “chord melody”?

AW: Picture sitting in a restaurant and there’s a band: There’s a singer singing a song, and a guitarist playing the chords of the song, and there’s bass player playing the bass lines… Chord melody is this kind of style that does all these things simultaneously on one instrument. The mandolin would play the melody, the chords, the harmony and the bassline. It’s not a mandolin generated form. Guitarists are so far ahead of us.

FJ: And you eventually wrote a whole book on this style?

AW: I wrote a book about how to play chord melody for Mel Bay. I think that if you do work through the book, it will give you a really good clear idea of what it means to play chord melody. It’s not so much “put your fingers here and it will sound good” as “this is why this sounds good.”

FJ: How many lessons did you end up taking with Don?

AW: I took lessons through high school. He’s very busy so it wasn’t a weekly thing but it was regular. Once he introduced this idea of chord melody, that’s a lot of what I was interested in. Then it was up to me to dissect that.

FJ: Did the mandolin come pretty easily to you?

AW: No, not at all. Of course, it’s tuned in fifths like a violin so from a single line approach, things are the same. However, everyone approaches it differently. I know some violin players who double on mandolin and play it the same way but I see the mandolin as more like a guitar. There are so much chordal capabilities that I play it in a very different way than I would the violin.

FJ: Did the mandolin make you a better jazz violinist?

AW: I think so because we talked a lot about harmonic theory and the construction of an improvised line and what that means. Sometimes we got a little philosophical about what it means to play a “good solo”… what does that actually mean? I think that’s important stuff to think about. If one doesn’t have personal ideas of what a good solo is for them, it’s very hard to achieve it. So we did get into that a lot. It was the beginning of my kind of analysis of what I like about all the players I like. Specifically, what is it about their playing that I find so amazing and how can I bring it into my playing.

FJ: What kind of mandolin do you use?

AW: I started with the mandolin that was in my house, a bad Harmony acoustic-electric thing. Shortly after I got a little more serious about it, I got a mandolin from Don MacRostie at Red Diamond Mandolins. I think I got it in 2000.

FJ: Any particular traits of that mandolin that you like?

AW: I like how it feels. It’s just really comfortable. Music is really hard and anything that makes it less hard I’m all for. To pick up an instrument and have it feel like it’s on your side, so to speak, I enjoy that.

FJ: You live in New York City, which has to be one of the few places where a jazz violinist and mandolin player can make a living. What is your week like?

AW: I divide up my time as it’s dictated. It’s based on the assignments that are coming in. Sometimes I’m on the road more than I’m in New York, sometimes I’m in New York for long stretches, sometimes I’m at home doing arrangements, sometimes I’m working with other musicians or my own group. It’s a nice mix of people. I like everyone who I get to work with.

FJ: Any specific projects that I should know about?

AW: There are always things. I don’t think anything is eligible for a MacArthur Genius grant or anything like that… My goals are very simple as a violinist in terms of single lines: I just want to be able to play what I hear in my head. And it’s always simpler than what my fingers want to play. It’s that constant struggle between playing what you actually intend and letting your fingers do what they want to do. The more you do it, the more successful you get. On the mandolin, it’s one things to play arrangements of songs in a chord melody style but I like the idea of incorporating chords within your solos. Playing lines as I would on the violin, but playing them in chords. That’s not really a big thing with mandolin players, but there’s a big tradition of it with guitars players.

All this stuff I play on the mandolin is taken from guitarists, some of whom I’ve only been able to listen to on record but a lot of them I’ve been lucky enough to work with, even as a violin player, I get to stand next to Bucky and John Pizzarelli or Frank Vignola or Howard Alden and watch what their hands are doing. If you do that enough you get some ideas about how things work.

FJ: Have you taken up the guitar yet?

AW: No, I haven’t. Those stretches are really big! I don’t know how anyone plays that instrument! I get angry when I see a 12 year old kid playing simple chords; I’m thinking if that kid who has no musical knowledge can play simple chords on the guitar, maybe I can. And then I take a guitar and even those very simple chords…the fingers have to stretch in such incredible ways! I don’t know, maybe I would get used to it. But I’m happy with the mandolin.

FJ: Any hope for a solo recording?

AW: I’m flattered when that’s asked. But I don’t know how well of a business move that is. My stock answer is, “I’m holding off to pursue more lucrative activities, like shadow puppetry.” But I’ll never say never.