From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
I had been scheduled to hear Dutch violinist Tim Kliphuis [pronounced clip-house] in January at the Netherlands Violin Competition in Utrecht. He had curated an innovative Night of the Violinfestival for January 28, the night before the finals, focused on non-classical styles ranging from Arabic maqam and Indian raga to ragtime. The event was canceled because of Covid restrictions, and a few days later, Kliphuis flew to the States for a two-week tour with jazz guitarist Jimmy Grant. In addition to Gypsy jazz concerts with Grant, Kliphuis held workshops based on his Stéphane Grappelli Gypsy Jazz Violin method (Mel Bay).
Kliphuis teaches improvisation to classical musicians at the Amsterdam Conservatory “to bring them up to speed with this other world, a massive world they know nothing about.” His more than a dozen albums run a cool gamut of styles: most recently for Sony, a jazz take on Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and his own Ulysses Violin Concerto.
Kliphuis has been coming to the U.S. since 2004, when he was invited to the then fledgling Djangofest on Whidbey Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle. Eighteen years later, it was concerts at Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, a ranch north of Los Angeles, and various stops in Arizona, before heading to the upper Midwest—Madison, Winona, and Minneapolis—and then drifting west to Montana.
I caught up with Kliphuis in Bozeman. He and Grant were waiting to catch a ride to Missoula. “They’re both cool university towns,” he says. Utrecht, another cool university town, he adds, “seems sixteen hundred weeks ago.”
Your hero was Stéphane Grappelli.
My hero was Grappelli—of course. He was the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt’s sideman on violin. I didn’t find out about him until I was 19. I was studying at the conservatory, going the classical route, knowing I wanted to do something different than be in an orchestra or even be a chamber musician, but not knowing what yet. So I thought, “I’ll just make sure I play the violin well and then the rest will either happen or not, or I’ll do something else.” And then I got a CD with the music of Stéphane Grappelli with pianists McCoy Tyner and Erroll Garner.
What kind of a violin do you need to play Gypsy jazz?
I approach technique from a classical angle, which is the same as Grappelli did, which means you need a classical instrument that sounds brilliant, a very good violin with a good sound—not a “jazz” violin. And those were the things I was looking for when I was studying at the conservatory.
Then, in 2005, a luthier friend in Amsterdam offered me a violin. It just worked for me. It’s been all over the world since, and I’ve played solo with orchestras with it. It’s just a really good acoustic violin made in 1805 by Jean Sohet, who is actually one of the very few documented makers from the French part of Belgium. During the pandemic, the violin traveled to Brussels without me and was photographed and documented by a luthier who’s writing the definitive book about Belgian violin makers.
How did you select your strings?
I tried out Pirastro’s Evah Pirazzi strings and absolutely loved them, so I get my strings from them now. They work great for my violin. They’re on the bright side and really talk. And when I’m in a big hall, that’s what I need.
And your bow?
You just need a good, balanced bow—I don’t believe in special “jazz” bows or whatever. I recently acquired a Sartory bow, around 100 years old, from the 1920s or early ’30s. It does everything I want. I have an unsigned German bow, which I’ve used for many years. But I’m not bringing them here because of the ivory laws. In the States, I bring a W.E. Hill and Sons bow, 100 years old with a metal tip.
What kind of case do you use?
It’s just a good, normal-sized Gewa case, which holds everything: the bows, the violin, some stuff. At the top it has a zipper compartment for all my sheet music and even my laptop, which I always have with me for composing. And I only store it in the overhead bins. If they want to put it in the hold for any reason, then I don’t fly on that plane.
Do you still take CDs to sell on your tours?
After all the concerts I’ve done since 2020, which were not very many of course, I had incredible sales—20 percent of my audience bought CDs. Traditionally through the years, I’ve always done well on tour, a couple of thousand CDs a year. And new ones are still a good way of getting radio play.
Do you have to change your technique to play Gypsy jazz?
It’s not just Gypsy music with a lot of notes, it’s jazz—in this case, swing music from the ’30s—and it follows the same rules that Lester Young and Benny Goodman followed. You need to slide with taste, so you need to use a slow bow because this classical musicthing of vibrato and a long bow—that’s the wrong sound. But while you need to change your sound, you don’t need to change your technique. You just need to start bowing slightly differently. You need to learn a bit about how a jazz slide works versus a classical slide. You need to learn the words of the language of jazz, which are called licks. And you need to understand how to make a nice melody like Louis Armstrong or Stan Getz or Joe Pass did.
What skills do students need to be able to tackle improvisation?
Of course, you will need to have good technique, because it’s up to the player to use their technique to make the right sounds. When I gave one of my gurus—Herman Krebbers, the David Oistrakh of Holland—my first album, he wrote me, “I always wanted to improvise, but I never could and have great respect for you.” I had put in 10,000 hours for the violin, then put in another 10,000 hours to become a serious player in my own little niche of Gypsy jazz.