Jazz fans sat in the presence of true greatness on Sunday night as Romanian-born, Paris-based violinist Florin Niculescu and his powerful backing trio blazed through a remarkable set of gypsy-tinged instrumental music.
Rainy Sunday afternoon weather forced the festival to relocate the concert from the Cistern to the Charleston Music Hall. Niculescu and his trio — pianist Florent Gac, bassist Samuel Hubert, and drummer Bruno Ziarelli — performed on the dry, elegant stage, rather than under the soggy oaks as part of the Spoleto Jazz Series. The concert marked Niculescu’s official solo debut in the States.
It was a relief to see and hear that Niculescu’s violin was amplified with one single microphone, rather than an internal electronic pickup, which can sometimes distort the true tone of delicate stringed instruments and make them sound synthetic. In an effort to play to the acoustics of the Music Hall, he plucked and played around the mic at varying distances — and with great effect.
After plucking a few strings to check for pitch, Niculescu opened with a dynamic solo that immediately floored the audience. It was a quick and passionate dose of incredible technique and deeply-felt soul. On some tunes, the violin passages were as “classical” in style and delivery as anything Itzhak Perlman or Jascha Heifetz might have played, while others were downright bluesy. It wasn’t simply a “gypsy jazz” set; he and the band also floated over a bit of Latin-based jazz and Django-styled folk with ease as well.
The heart of the program came from Niculescu’s latest album, Florin Niculescu Plays Stephane Grappelli. Grappelli fiddled with Django Reinhardt for years and was considered on of the best French jazz violinists ever. In one of only a few brief moments on the microphone, Niculescu humbly introduced this segment of the show after introducing the members of his band. The English he spoke was decent, but one could tell he felt uncomfortable speaking it beyond the few phrases he uttered. “Does anybody speak French?” he jovially asked the audience at one point.
Drummer Ziarelli was the only on-stage player who worked with Niculescu on the Stephane Grappelli, and the high level of communication and rich chemistry between the two musicians were evident. Ziarelli’s wild and unusual style slightly contrasted the precision of Niculescu’s string work — especially in the way the drummer clicked the high-hat and accented his cymbals. Even more odd was the way Ziarelli held the drumstick in his left hand. It looked like what jazz drummers call “traditional grip,” only between the wrong fingers. He often had the stick pointing in the “wrong” direction when working the top of the hats. His slappy technique and full sound would have made Art Blakey proud.
On the other side of the stage, Florent Gac’s melodic piano work complemented much of Niculescu’s super-fast riffs and runs with a more delicate touch. Gac pushed a lot of sound out of his piano and soloed brilliantly more than a few times. He had a nice touch and a cool sense of syncopation.
Even with slower numbers, the band gradually built momentum during the 90-minute set. Many in the audience, whooped, shouted, and applauded after each solo. Others seemed emotionally exhausted.
Between the final piece and the one-song encore, Niculescu and his band received two roaring standing ovations. With such flare, fire, and finesse, they certainly earned them both.