HOLDREGE — Mads Tolling shuns the attempt to categorize music.
“Jazz is a lot of things,” he said in an interview from his home in the Bay Area of California. “Personally I hate the categorization of music because music is just music. It’s really not about the style; it’s about the players, about the expression and the message you’re conveying through your playing.”
With a background in classical music, Tolling used that foundation as a way to approach jazz.
“I use a lot of classical elements as entry points into the music,” he said. “That’s the way I was raised. We all bring whatever background we started with. Ultimately it’s the expression of each player and then the act of coming together as a group — whether it works or not.”
The Grammy Award-winning musician will bring his quartet, Mads Tolling and the Mads Men, to The Tassel in Holdrege for “Cool Yule — A Nordic Holiday Celebration,” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3.
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The band features violin, piano, bass and drums.
“We’re playing music from the 1960s, specifically popular tunes that were featured in movies, TV shows and radio hits,” Tolling said. “We’re basically taking those tunes and ‘jazzified’ them, making fresh versions of them that kind of go beyond the original versions. We do that using improvisation, harmonies and arrangements — and we use everybody’s virtuosic skills in the group to that effect. We want to give people both the ‘jazz thing’ and at the same time, something that a lot of people will recognize.”
Tolling grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the age of 6 years old he started playing the violin using the Suzuki Method. Busking on the streets of Copenhagen with his sister gave Mads his first experiences in front of live audiences. At 14, after having played mainly classical music, Mads fell in love with American jazz when his dad gave him a cassette tape of “Birth of the Cool” by Miles Davis. After graduating high school, Mads moved to the U.S. to pursue jazz studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He studied with top-notch musicians such as Matt Glaser, Joe Lovano and Joanne Brackeen, and he graduated Berklee Summa Cum Laude in 2003.
Since then he has performed with the Turtle Island Quartet and also in Stanley Clark’s band.
“Defining jazz can be hard to do,” he said. “Jazz started, in some ways, way back with the people who came from Africa. That music blended with European music to create the blues. Jazz came out of that because things got harmonically and rhythmically more interesting, and people developed the style of blues. What makes something jazz is exactly that — elements of improvisation, intricate harmonies, a rootsy-feel and European harmonies. Jazz is a lot of things.”
Tolling also talked about the “feel” of jazz as an art form that goes into your system.
“Swing is another element of jazz that’s very important,” he noted.
Some audience members might believe that jazz is only one thing, a one-dimensional form of music.
“That could be part of the problem with the appeal of jazz,” Tolling said. “I agree with the element of giving people something to hat their hat on, whether it’s a melody they know, whether it’s a bass line they know, whether it’s an intriguing rhythm they can feel — all of that stuff adds to the enjoyment of the audience.”
The violinist also believes that jazz musicians have done a disservice to the music by not giving audiences a starting place with the music.
“We try to avoid the super extremes of technicality and the complexity of jazz,” Tolling said. “We try to keep it light and fun. And a big part of it is being able to tell stories about the tunes and how they relate to my own experiences, why I chose that tune and my personal connection with it. That’s a very important aspect of it, too. It gives people a reason to care about the music.”
One of the biggest considerations for Tolling — the sense of a live performance.
“With some music during live shows, it’s almost like they’re hitting the play button on their device,” he said. “That’s not what jazz is. Jazz is created in the spur of the moment and it’s quite different from performance to performance. It’s the ultimate live music because it’s different every time.”
The element of improvisation helps keep the music fresh for Tolling.
Living in the Bay Area of San Francisco gives Tolling opportunities for collaboration.
“There is a lot exchange and a lot of things going on,” he said of where he lives. “I would say the Bay Area is nice. It’s very diverse. It’s not like a mecca like New York or Nashville where you have more of a scene and people are actively playing in areas where there is a dense amount of music happening. That’s not really the Bay Area.”
Instead Tolling is working with people like Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead.
“I’m enjoy living here,” Tolling said. “That’s why I’ve been here so long.”