The history of jazz has been populated by masters of the trumpet, saxophone, trombone, clarinet, piano, bass, drums, and other associated instruments. Yet only a handful of legendary musicians have captivated jazz audiences with their creative mastery of the violin. Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, and Jon-Luc Ponty firmly established themselves as virtuosos in their day. Beyond these three, however, the names of other great jazz violinists—past or present—don’t come to mind quite so easily.
This will no doubt change before much longer, with an addition of Elia Bastida to the above list. A 26-year-old native and resident of Barcelona, Spain, Elia has been bringing the violin back to center stage at jazz venues across Europe, as well as on her own CD releases. And she’s been doing this since she was 17, when she came into the public eye after joining the Sant Andreu Jazz Band in 2012. The SAJB, led since its inception in 2006 by Joan Chamorro, has earned a steadily growing reputation as a band comprised of children and teenagers who, due to their own talents combined with Chamorro’s brilliant teaching and guidance, consistently play jazz standards with the polish and skill far beyond their young ages to enthusiastic audiences and millions of YouTube viewers around the world.
Elia began violin lessons when she was five years old, and refers to the instrument as her “first love.” She later enrolled at the Escola Municipal de Musica de Sant Andreu (where Chamorro taught and created the SAJB). At the school, her studies were centered strictly on classical music; she was barely aware of jazz at all.
Always on the lookout for promising talent to enhance the SAJB, Chamorro once approached her with the suggestion, “It would be nice if we can do something with the violin” in the jazz band. She hadn’t considered any possibilities of playing violin in jazz, and at that time thought perhaps it might happen at some point much further down the line.
Andrea Motis, the trumpet playing and singing prodigy who had been with the SAJB since its first year, later approached Elia with Chamorro’s renewed offer for the violinist to work out some songs. He sent her Joe Venuti’s “Pretty Trix,” which she worked out and played, then sent back to Chamorro to assess. Shortly thereafter, she was a member of the SAJB, diving into the deep end of jazz, as Chamorro and others introduced her to the music of Stephane Grappelli as well as a host of other jazz giants. She hasn’t looked back on classical music since.
“I entered the Sant Andreu Jazz Band when I was 17 and it really changed my life,” she says. “It was then when I got into jazz and it was clear that I wanted to dedicate myself to this music, I wanted jazz to be my language.”
In addition to learning how her famous predecessors adapted the violin for jazz, she also enhanced her crash course in the genre by studying and transcribing solos played on other instruments. “In the beginning, I transcribed the other instruments more, solos by musicians like Chet Baker, Lester Young, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard.”
A major moment in her first year with the SAJB came on April 13, 2013, when the band performed outdoors at Barcelona’s Plaza Reial (Royal Plaza). Video clips of that concert, available for viewing on YouTube, feature Elia performing superb solos on both “Minor Swing” and “China Boy.”
“For ‘Minor Swing,” she recalls, “I played part of the Stephane Grappelli solo, and the second part is mine, but that’s the process Joan uses for new students−of learning the solos of the [original] musicians, then you start to create your own solo.”
That performance not only showcased her own impressive talents, as well as those of all the SAJB members at that time, but also marked the first guest appearance with the band of American tenor sax titan Scott Hamilton, who has since become an integral presence in countless concerts and studio recordings with the band and its various side group configurations. Just days before the concert in the plaza, he had been part of a showcase for Andrea Motis at Barcelona’s Jamboree Club, having been invited by Esteve Pi, who has been a regular drummer for many SAJB-related concerts and recordings.
“Yes, that was all done the same week we did the videos and album with Andrea at the Jamboree Club. Basically the connection was I was a longtime colleague of Esteve Pi and Ignassi Terraza, and Joan Monne. Esteve called me ‘cause I knew he was working with this teenage girl who was a big star in Spain, and they were getting a lot of concert dates. He called and said, would you come and play for a week at the Jamboree? And I said, yes, we’d love to come.’ And on the Saturday of that week, they asked, ‘would you come out early and do this outdoor concert at the Plaza Reial and meet some of the kids?’ And that’s how that happened.”
As impressive as Elia’s skills on violin may be, her talents don’t end there. She took up the saxophone only after she had been with the band quite some time. “Two years after [joining the SAJB] I started playing alto saxophone,” she explains. When a position for tenor sax opened, Chamorro asked if she would switch to tenor, which she did, and has played tenor ever since. “I love it,” she says. “When you already play one instrument, it’s easier to play a second.”
Hamilton concurs. “These kids [in the SAJB] really all double on unusual combinations of instruments. I wasn’t surprised to see Elia playing tenor sax, but the tenor sax is so much easier to play than the violin, in terms of producing a sound, and playing the scale on it. They’re all difficult if you want to get past a certain point, but they don’t get much more difficult than the violin, in terms of technique. If you want to be a violin player, you really have to start when you’re five or six years old or they say it will never really happen.”
Oh, yes, and she sings, too−with a particular soft spot for Brazilian bossa nova, which is also a favorite among the other past and present SAJB singers. “My first instrument, and where I think I give more original ‘things’ is the violin, but I also love to sing, and play saxophone. I love singing bossa nova and Brazilian music. Joan always gives you the possibility to sing if you want to do it, and if he thinks that it can be a good thing. I don’t remember if it was him or me who suggested that I sing, but I remember that, step by step, Joan gave me songs to sing.” She believes in the close connection between playing and singing. “I think being a musician helps as a singer, and being a singer helps me as a musician. And the same thing with playing the saxophone helping me to play violin jazz, etc.…Whatever you do as a musician will enrich all your facets as a musician. Because the musician is you, with all the music that you have inside you, that will come out for the instruments that you play.”
Chamorro has also produced a series of 16 Joan Chamorro presenta… CDs through the years—with more on the way−each featuring a standout musician in the band, as recorded both in the studio and in live performances. Elia released her debut CD as part of the series in 2018.
That same year, she turned in a brilliant performance at the Palau de la Musica, a strikingly ornate concert hall in Barcelona, and home to many of the SAJB’s most memorable performances. During the SAJB’s concert as part of the 2018 Barcelona Jazz Festival, Elia was given a featured spot to play a “Stardust”/ “Shine” medley. And shine she did, commanding center stage, albeit modestly, for nearly eight minutes, joined by Hamilton for the “Shine” half of the medley. The piece ended to tremendous applause. “I remember that concert perfectly,” she says. “It was a very special moment for me because there was a Stephane Grappelli (tribute) at this Barcelona Jazz Festival. Stephane Grappelli played in this festival, and in the same place, the Palau de Musica, years ago, and I did this tribute in the concert with the Sant Andreu jazz band.”
Playing with Elia made Hamilton realize he had been a tad rusty playing alongside a violinist. “I made a record with Joe Venuti back when I was 22 years old, and I had been listening to Venuti since I was a kid, from my father’s records. And I played a set one time in the ’80s with Stephane Grappelli’s band. But other than that, I’ve had very little chance to work with violin players. Actually, I’m a big fan of jazz violin. I’ve always been a fan of Stuff Smith and Ray Nance, and a number of other good violin players. So I’ve got a lot of appreciation for it, but I’ve had very little experience. I’m still learning how to blend in ensembles with violins. It’s a tricky thing.”
In 2020, Elia released perhaps an even more personal album than her first. The Magic of the Violin, again with Chamorro at the helm, with the musical support of Hamilton and others who often work closely with the SAJB on a regular basis. As Chamorro wrote at the time, “Elia, during the eight years she has been part of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band, has had an interest, a dedication so passionate about music and in particular jazz, which has led her to be, today, a great soloist, especially with the violin. Without neglecting the musicality, the strength, the intensity of Grappelli as the first reference, and adding everything contributed by bebop, hardbop and other music, the search for Elia of a speech that includes all aspects which she incorporates, have made her adopt her own style rich in nuances…which she manages to extract all the wonderful possibilities of ‘the magical sound of the violin.’ ”
The somewhat unusual pairing of her violin and Hamilton’s tenor sax began to appear more frequently in live performances and recordings−many done in Chamorro’s home studio/rehearsal space, known as The Jazz House. Hamilton also performed as a guest with The New Quartet, a side project consisting of Elia, Chamorro, and longtime SAJB musicians Alba Armengou on trumpet/vocals, and Carla Motis on guitar. The group’s live set at the 2019 Barcelona Jazz Festival is preserved on the CD Joan Chamorro and New Quartet, featuring Scott Hamilton.
While Elia and Carla have since “graduated” from the SAJB as full-time members, they continue to work with the project behind the scenes, and have returned to perform with the current band on special occasions and concerts, as have several former SAJB musicians. “The seven years I spent inside the big band have been incredible, a dream come true!” Elia wrote in 2020. “The SAJB has given me the great opportunity to record many albums with international soloists, to do many concerts, to have two records in my name, and so many opportunities that, without being in the SAJB, I wouldn’t have had. I am very knowledgeable and I am very grateful!”
Hamilton’s invaluable contributions to so many recordings and live gigs led to the inevitable decision to record an “official” collaborative album, titled Elia Bastida Meets Scott Hamilton.
But whose idea was this? “I assume this was a combination of Joan and Elia,” Hamilton says. “Joan may have suggested the idea, but I think Elia pushed to work with me a little bit, and Joan saw that it would be something she wanted to do. And, certainly, from the beginning, something that I liked doing.”
Sessions began in late 2019, but the global COVID pandemic put this and other SAJB-related projects on hold for just about all of 2020 (Hamilton, who lives near Florence, Italy, was also hindered by enforced travel restrictions). Happily, the musicians were able to put the final tracks and other finishing touches to the album in late October of 2021, in time for its debut concert at the Barcelona Jazz Festival in December, followed by a pair of concerts in Madrid.
“All of this has been really good for me,” Hamilton says, adding with considerable modesty, “because there’s a lot more people that have seen these videos who know me from these videos, than there are people have gone to the videos because my name was on them. I think I’ve benefitted from this more than they have. But it’s been good for all of us.”
Elia also began collaborating with Barcelona singer/pianist Carolina Alabau. The two have worked to create the enchanting album Meraki, released in September of 2021. It is a slight departure from the traditional jazz Elia usually plays. “With Carolina, we don’t consider what we play to be jazz. We play ‘Mediterranean’ music, traditional music with jazz influences for my part, and some pop influences for her part. Carolina plays more modern music, but also jazz–and I am a total jazz musician, so when we play together, we create a combination.” The CD includes four compositions they wrote together, as well as Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” one of the three videos they’ve released on YouTube for the album.
As if all this perpetual activity weren’t enough, Elia is also a part of the HalliGalli Quartet, which includes fellow violinist (and partner of Andrea Motis), Christoph Mallinger. But this group takes a lighter approach to music in their performances, with both song selections and arrangements. “It’s a fun project,” she says, “because we do musical jokes, but we work hard, we rehearse for three hours one day a week, for all of the details we have to work out.” Videos of that group can also be found on YouTube.
Such a heavy schedule of recording, touring, and concerts doesn’t allow for much rest; before the December concerts in Madrid to debut her CD with Hamilton, she also took part in a brief tour of Sweden with Chamorro and SAJB veterans Alba Armengou and Alba Esteban. But Elia doesn’t seem to mind the seemingly relentless activity. “No,” she says with a smile, “I’m very happy.”
You can find Elia Bastida’s CDs, and all SAJB releases at www.jazztojazz.com and on Amazon.com.