Stephane Grappelli is not your ordinary living legend. Rather than relax at his Paris home and reflect on his distinguished career, the man widely considered to be the world's greatest jazz violinist is celebrating his 80th birthday by touring the United States. One of the few originators of European-based jazz still performing, Mr. Grappelli personifies a musical tradition that dates back to the 1930s - the infancy of jazz - when the violin was as common in a swing combo as the saxophone is today.
The idiom's evolution through brassy big bands and contemporary electronics has caused the jazz violin to become an exotic rarity to most fans, but Grappelli makes it swing as smoothly as any other instrument.
His current tour is attracting the largest audiences of his career, highlighted tonight by a celebration at Carnegie Hall, where Grappelli will be honored by giants of both jazz and classical music. The lineup includes composer/pianist Michel Legrand, Belgian harmonica wizard Toots Thielemans, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Juilliard String Quartet.
It's ironic that Grappelli rouses the loudest ovations with his interpretation of Duke Ellington's ``Don't Get Around Much Anymore.'' His idea of not getting around much is 13 concerts in 12 cities over 18 days this month, with a tour of the West Coast in the works for later this year.
But while his storied past and abundant energy are truly remarkable, it is Grappelli's music that is selling out his shows. His playing sparkles with as much vitality and virtuosity as ever.
This was the case last Friday in Cambridge's Charles Hotel Ballroom, where a capacity crowd was treated to an elegant evening of memorable melodies and improvisations of jazz chestnuts. Grappelli has performed and recorded with many of the songs' composers - names like Benny Goodman, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, and Ellington. Yet each time he plays them with new freshness.
Combining the precision and melodicism of classical with the rich harmonies and rhythms of jazz produces a most pleasing result.
Tastefully backed by guitarist Marc Fossett and string bassist John Burr, Grappelli set the mood for the show when he opened with the mellow ``Cheek to Cheek.'' After smoothly stating the melody, he embarked on a soaring, spirited improvised solo over a double-time beat, before returning to the original rhythm and melody to end the tune.
Throughout the evening, this format showcased Grappelli's dazzling technique and intonation, as well as his unmistakable romantic sound. He is a master at milking from the violin its finest quality - the ability to soothe the human heart - yet he does it without being syrupy.
On stage, Grappelli is the picture of cool. Letting his sidemen show off on an extended intro, he sits nodding with an approving grin. When it's his solo, he's off in his own world, bowing arm and soundboard fingers flowing effortlessly through quick and often complex chord changes.
With a lilting French accent, he introduces ``Swing 42'' as ``a tune I used to play with Django Reinhardt in the Hot Club of France a few weeks ago in 1934.'' Grappelli's collaboration with Reinhardt in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France is musical history. They were the toast of Europe until disrupted by World War II - their music immortalized by hundreds of 78-r.p.m. records.
After the war, he continued performing, but in relative obscurity until the late '60s re-release of his recordings with Reinhardt. Suddenly there were requests for new albums, appearances at jazz festivals, and international acclaim.
Downbeat magazine called him ``one of the most accomplished musicians ever to play jazz on the violin,'' after readers voted Grappelli into its prestigious Hall of Fame in 1983.
In recent years, he has recorded with stars as diverse as Gary Burton, Yehudi Menuhin, Jean-Luc Ponty, Joe Pass, and Paul Simon. His most popular albums include ``Satin Doll'' (Vanguard), ``The Quintet of the Hot Club of Paris'' (Innercity), and ``Stephane Grappelli Plays Jerome Kern'' (GRP).