By Greg Cahill | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
“Oh, yeah, I’ve always been a very melodically oriented person. It’s how I express myself,” says jazz violinist Sara Caswell when asked about the more lyrical tunes on The Way to You (Anzic Records), her first solo album in 17 years. “When I was growing up, I was a very introverted person. I was very shy. But whenever I had a fiddle in my hand, I felt like myself—I felt like I had a voice. So melody has always been a way for me to express myself, a way to communicate with people.”
The desire to communicate took on extra meaning after the pandemic delayed not only the album’s release for nearly three years, but also the chance to tour this material. Now, Caswell is returning to the stage after a painful lockdown-driven hiatus. “To not have a performance in that period was so difficult,” she says during a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn. Her mood is upbeat and positive as she discusses her first post-pandemic tour. “Musicians breathe with the idea of making music with each other and feed on the energy and enthusiasm of the audience. So, it was hard—kind of like having the air sucked out of the room. We all went through a withdrawal, performers and audiences alike, and it’s good to be back. It’s a welcome return to our careers.”
Her own career has been impressive. Caswell is a Grammy-nominated, classically trained string player who has been ranked several times in the past decade on the prestigious DownBeat Critics and Readers Polls. As an A-list collaborator and session player, Caswell has toured or recorded with Bruce Springsteen, Esperanza Spalding, Regina Carter, Linda Oh, Henry Threadgill, Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau, John Patitucci, and Helen Sung, to name a few. She also is a member of the 9 Horses trio and Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge. Caswell teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, New York University, and the New School.
Her ace band, which she has led for nearly 15 years, features guitarist Jesse Lewis, bassist Ike Sturm, and drummer Jared Schonig. The band was joined on the new album by vibraphonist Chris Dingman.
Indeed, it was the band that instigated the sessions for the new solo project. “Over the years, I had been invited to do shows at various venues and concerts, and the guys and I had enjoyed playing repertoire for those concerts, but we hadn’t actually gotten into the studio to document that material. Jared was the first one to say, ‘Sarah, we’ve got to get these tracks recorded. We’re having so much fun,’” she recalls. “So, I’m really grateful to them for their role in getting this music on record.”
The Way to You sat idle while Caswell spent the lockdown teaching on Zoom and posting performance videos on social media. “It became obvious early on that this was a project that was going to have to wait,” she says. “We had planned to release it [in 2020] and go on tour, but a couple of weeks’ delay turned into a couple of months, which turned into a couple of years. I could have released it during the pandemic, but that meant I would have had to sacrifice touring. With the amount of joy I feel playing music and playing with these guys [in the band], I just couldn’t do it.
“I felt it was worth waiting for.”
The new album has a broad sonic range, from the lush lyricism of the titular track (a variation on Michel Legrand’s “On My Way to You”) to a fanciful rendition of Brazil composer Egberto Gismonti’s “7 Anéis” to the raw energy of “Last Call,” a Bill Frisell–inspired number driven by distorted guitar and a burning violin solo. “I’m a huge fan of Michel and his music—pretty much everything he has done I adore,” Caswell says of the title track. “That song was new to me. When I had a chance to explore the melody and the chord changes, I knew this was a tune I had to play with these guys. It became pretty clear early on that it was a song that was going to make it onto this project.”
On the album’s closer, a cover of the Antônio Carlos Jobim ballad “O Que Tinha de Ser,” Caswell plays a ten-string hardanger d’amore, designed and built by Norwegian luthier Salve Håkedal. “I was in Seattle in 2013 and the host of the concert had a great instrument collection,” she says. “One of the newest acquisitions was a hardanger, one of the first that Salve had made. My friend said, ‘Sara, you really have to try this fiddle—it’s incredible and you have to experience it.’ I played three notes and was moved immediately by the warmth of tone and the depth of the resonance. I could feel it—every inch of my body was vibrating from the resonance. I ended up playing it that night for two to three hours. The next morning, I reached out to Salve and asked him to make me one.”
Caswell first picked up the violin at age 5. Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana—home of Indiana University’s famed Jacobs School of Music—she had access to a deep pedagogical pool. Caswell enrolled in classical instruction through IU’s pre-college training program under instructor Rebecca Henry. She later studied with IU violin professor Mimi Zweig for five years. At age 12, she transitioned into esteemed violin pedagogue Josef Gingold’s studio for four years, until his death in 1995. “All of those teachers were incredible to work with,” she says. “I am so grateful I had those years to work with Josef Gingold, who was a big influence on my life.”
Her formal introduction to jazz came through David Baker, the founder of IU’s jazz studies department. “He was an incredible teacher and instrumentalist,” she says. “He was the first person who introduced me to the jazz language and helped me build that foundation. He was an important person in my development.”
Surprisingly, many of her idols were not violin legends, but the great jazz horn players of the past. “When I started taking jazz lessons, David said the transcriptions he was going to give me were those of horn players,” she explains. “He felt it was crucial to learn the language from a variety of instrumentalists: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell—alto sax, trumpet, and piano. That way the language could be front and center. He said after that language became something I was comfortable speaking, we would look at jazz violinists and how that language was applied to the instrument. He was concerned that if I heard the jazz violinists first, then I would start to sound like them. He wanted me to learn the language of jazz and to develop my own voice.”
And why did she connect with jazz at all, given that so many classically trained string players have a visceral fear of improvisation? “I was drawn to the in-the-moment creativity and the fact that you are reacting to the environment,” she says, “whether it’s the music on the page or the musicians with whom you are playing. Or the room. Or the weather. Or your mood. There is instantaneous freedom within those structures. And that was something that was really appealing to me. And it was fun!”
That’s not to say jazz was more fun than classical music, she adds, but jazz did present a new avenue to self-expression. “It was a chance to take a risk, you know, and to see where that would take me,” she says. “That was a fun adventure to have. And I was introduced to jazz at a young age. When you’re young, you don’t necessarily have some of those barriers we develop as we grow older. We’re willing to skin our knees or get a bruise or a bump because it’s fun—it’s a game. And I was young enough to process the musical language of jazz. It was like growing up in a bilingual home. That helped to facilitate my learning.”
And then there’s the Big Apple. Caswell credits her move to New York City nearly two decades ago with shaping her as an artist in a major way. The cultural riches of the city that never sleeps provided seemingly endless opportunities to learn; in addition to attending performances at jazz clubs and concert halls, Caswell spent hours combing through the stacks of jazz and world-music recordings at the New York Public Library. “I’m a changed person, of course,” she says of her move to New York. “When you open yourself up to any new environment, it inspires and changes you, and New York has changed me for the better. I’ve met so many incredible musicians and heard so much incredible music. The energy here is just electric, thanks to the musicians who come into the city to work and to craft their music. I’m so grateful to have been here for 20 years—I’m always evolving and growing and changing. I love the idea of having different experiences on this journey.”
Even the darkest days of the pandemic—when the usually bustling streets grew silent as cautious New Yorkers sheltered in place—offered lessons. “It was a weird, uncomfortable time, but the sense of community was strong,” Caswell says of the lockdown. “People reached out and checked in on each other. It was a chance to connect. I’ve never felt so strong before. I love that the sense of camaraderie has carried on since Covid. Bonds were created, and friendships and networks. We all leaned on each other to get through a couple of crazy years.
“It wasn’t all bad,” she adds with a slight laugh. “I now live life with more mindfulness and gratitude. So many aspects of our everyday existence were stripped away during the pandemic—gathering with friends and family, making music with colleagues, performing live in clubs and concert halls, traveling and touring, teaching in a classroom, eating in restaurants, hugging loved ones. Living without these things for so long made me realize how essential and invaluable they are to me.”
With the pandemic fading in the rearview mirror and performance spaces once again filling with music and audiences, Caswell looks forward to her summer tour. “I tend to be shy, but when I feel the most joy is when I’m making music with my friends,” she says. “I’m just so grateful for the fact that I’m able to do that. I love the people. I love the places the gigs take me. I love the music I am being entrusted to play. Every day is different. I feel like every day, especially after having gone through the pandemic, is a gift. I go to bed very grateful every night.”
What Sara Caswell Plays
In addition to the custom-built Håkedal hardanger d’amore (which has five main strings and five sympathetic strings), Caswell plays one of two violins, depending on the ensemble, instrumentation, setting, and repertoire: “For near-acoustic concerts requiring minimal amplification, I use a gorgeous 1908 Stefano Scarampella, on loan to me since 1998, combined with a DPA 4099V instrument microphone,” she says. “I’ve found no other clip mic to so cleanly and effortlessly capture the heart of my tone. When performing with a rhythm section or larger jazz ensemble, I use a 1905 Joseph Collingwood violin, which has an L.R. Baggs bridge installed, and route it through an L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI into the venue’s sound system. Because my desired EQ is already set on my DI, I’m making efficient use of my band’s allotted soundcheck slot and avoid the challenges that sometimes occur between a violinist and sound technician regarding how to best EQ the violin.
“When amplification is necessary, but no house sound system is available, I use my Collingwood violin with the Baggs bridge and route it through an AER Compact 60 amplifier. Popular among guitarists, violinists, vocalists, and countless musicians seeking a clean and powerful enhancement of their natural tone, the AER is an incredible amp that also happens to be one of the most portable, NYC subway–friendly rigs around.”