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Prog and the violin

Sometime in 1978 or 1979 in a Zoology class at Goldsmiths’, fellow students Jo Wallace and Karen Fraser were discussing the use of the violin in rock music, not getting much further than the Fabulous Poodles and the Electric Light Orchestra. I don’t think they even considered Slade, where bassist Jim Lea had previously played the instrument for the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra, or Hawkwind, who included Simon House on violin during the period when they got the closest to prog they’d ever get. There’s a possibility that their friend Susan Aspinall might have been able to help them out with some suggestions. She was a single honours Botany student who I subsequently found out was into progressive rock, a remarkable discovery when you consider that prog was a dirty word in 1980, who I invited back to my room for coffee and ELP after a field trip close to my hall of residence. I was reminded of that Zoology conversation during the 2014 Prog Résiste convention in Soignies, Belgium watching La Coscienza di Zeno, adding to a short list of other bands I’d seen up to that time that featured violin: UK, Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia, Jethro Tull (on the A tour), Fairport Convention, Curved Air and Caravan, and thought the concept deserved revisiting, just sticking to prog acts.

Caravan, Shepherd's Bush Empire, 8th October 2011

If you consider the origins of progressive rock, a melting pot of influences including European romantic music, the violin has some claim to be a prog instrument. Excluding the ‘rock band plus orchestra’ albums such as The Nice’s Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Five Bridges Suite or Yes’ Time and a Word, I first heard violin on Birds of Fire which, I would contend, falls under the prog umbrella (see The Mahavishnu Orchestra utilised blistering exchanges between guitar, Moog and Jerry Goodman’s violin to stunning effect, though I’m a bit wary of the country influence in some of the slower numbers, especially on The Inner Mounting Flame. Years later when I bought The Flock’s 1969 debut album I was disappointed with the song writing but to be fair to Goodman, he was a late addition to the band. The CD was donated to a local charity shop, one of the few I’ve not held on to. The second version of Mahavishnu Orchestra which ran from 1974-1976 featured Frank Zappa alumnus Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Apocalypse, the first of their two albums was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and consequently had a symphonic-jazz style.

I first heard Geoffrey Richardson on For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night around the time of its release but it wasn’t until I started buying Caravan albums in the 80s that I really appreciated his contribution. I may think that Nine Feet Underground is the best thing Caravan ever recorded but Richardson’s presence, especially on live material like the brilliantly produced Live at the Fairfield Halls, 1974, adds something special.

I probably heard Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House around the time I first listened to Caravan, which was my introduction to the band. Bassist Ray Shulman plays violin on every album apart from Giant for a Day! and Civilian, by which time the band had jettisoned any hint of progressive rock. Violin was just one of the different non-standard rock instruments Gentle Giant used to vary the palette supporting their wide stylistic range, but it proved very handy when electrical problems beset the band during their September-October 1976 European tour. The jazz standard Sweet Georgia Brown (aka Breakdown in Brussels) appears on the live 2LP Playing the Fool, which was the first Gentle Giant album I bought, on cassette.

I started listening to King Crimson in 1974, so after the Mahavishnu Orchestra, my next memorable exposure to prog violin was via the 1972-1974 incarnation of Crimson, though David Cross’ role and contribution changed following the departure of Jamie Muir around the time of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. Cross found himself playing more Mellotron and electric piano and in a live setting his in violin and viola were barely audible above a muscular rhythm section and Fripp’s guitar. EG label-mate Eddie Jobson had to be drafted in for the studio overdubs for live album USA. I’ve followed Cross’ subsequent career with interest, having been really impressed with his Exiles CD which I managed to find in New York some years after seeing him with his band performing the material at London’s Astoria, and I’ve seen him play a number of times since, leading his band or collaborating with others.

David Cross performing with Le Orme, Brescia, 20th April 2018

Darryl Way made an appearance as a guest musician on the track Opus 1065 from Birds by Trace. Trace supported Curved Air on tour in 1975 and keyboard player Rick van der Linden expressed an appreciation of Way’s mastery of the violin, acknowledging a shared ability to improvise around a classical music theme. The drummer on Birds was prog journeyman Ian Mosley, formerly of Darryl Way’s Wolf. Way also appeared on Heavy Horses, as a guest on the title track and on Acres Wild, where he demonstrates his versatility handling more folk-oriented music. He also released his first solo album, Concerto for Electric Violin in 1978 with an orchestra synthesized by former Curved Air band mate Francis Monkman. This was premiered on ITV’s highly-regarded culture programme The South Bank Show and I bought it soon after my arrival in London at the end of the 70s. My first Curved Air LP was Air Conditioning, bought second-hand from Record and Tape Exchange for £1 in the early 80s and I’ve since added Second Album, Phantasmagoria and Midnight Wire, and Canis Lupus by Darryl Way’s Wolf to my collection.

The supergroup UK formed in 1977 and featured Eddie Jobson on keyboards and violin. They released two studio albums UK and Danger Money and the live set Night After Night recorded in Japan by the reduced-size Danger Money line-up who toured supporting Jethro Tull in 1979, when Tull were very much at the height of their commercial appeal. Subsequently, Ian Anderson asked Jobson to appear on what started out as a solo venture but was released as A under the Jethro Tull banner. UK was a very strong progressive rock album tinged with jazz. The departure of Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth meant that Danger Money and Night After Night were weaker, with the live album containing some distinctly middle-of-the-road material. I find A very poor fare. At the time of its release many prog acts had either temporarily or permanently disappeared or adopted a more commercial sound. The short songs seemed to attempt to match prevailing tastes and watching Jethro Tull tour A at the Royal Albert Hall did nothing to change my mind about the quality of the material.

The departure of Hugh Banton and David Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator prompted a rethink by Peter Hammill and he drafted in Graham Smith from Charisma label-mates String Driven Thing on violin and a subtle change to the band’s name, dropping ‘Generator’. Nick Potter, absent since the recording of H to He returned on bass and the resulting sound on The Quiet Zone / The Pleasure Dome is less full-sounding than on any of the preceding albums, but comes across as more urgent and direct, with an almost punk attitude. Peter Hammill’s use of a violinist continued after the demise of Van der Graaf on both solo albums and during the tours of his solo material when he collaborated with Stuart Gordon.

There’s a fair amount of violin in progressivo italiano too, though surprisingly little during the 70s. My first exposure to Italian prog was PFM’s live album Cook which features the excellent multi-instrumentalist Mauro Pagani on, amongst other things, violin. Violin is quite prominent throughout the album but it is used to best effect on Alta Loma Five Till Nine where the band plays an arrangement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Following the departure of Pagani, PFM brought in violinist Gregory Bloch for their next studio album Jet Lag and have called on the talents of Lucio Fabbri since 1979.

PFM, ULU, 2nd March 2019

I knew that there was a strong progressive rock tradition in Italy where UK bands like Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator had been incredibly successful, though sourcing progressivo italiano was difficult until the advent of online music retailers. My interest in the genre was fuelled by family trips to Italy, beginning with the delights of Venice and Rome (in 2005, 2006 and 2007) where record stores were part of the itinerary and I’d take Jerry Lucky’s Progressive Rock Files with me to help with what to look for. I gradually built up a fairly comprehensive collection of albums from the classic acts of the 70s and then, following my first Italian prog festival in Genoa in 2014, began collecting the music of more contemporary bands.

Quella Vecchia Locanda was possibly the most famous of the violin-featuring bands after PFM. I prefer their first, eponymous album with violinist Donald Lax to their second album Il Tempo Della Gioia from 1974, where Claudio Filice took on violin duties. The first album is full of energy and though the band took care producing their follow-up, there’s a feeling of melancholy that contradicts the album’s title, A Time of Joy. Torino’s prog-jazz rockers Arti e Mestieri featured violin on their first two albums Tilt (1974) and Giro di Walzer per Domani (1975) but it was absent from their next three albums in 1979, 1983 and 1985 before reappearing for the latest three in 2001, 2005 and 2015. The Celeste album Principe di Giorno (1976) which is regarded as something of a classic, is a pastoral work where the violin plays an important role. It’s reminiscent of Trespass-era Genesis though there are hints of Wind and Wuthering, too. A second album, Celeste II was recorded by a much changed line-up without violin and released in 1981, but it isn’t truly part of the Celeste canon. The band reformed in 2016 and released two excellent albums Il Risveglio del Principe (2020) and Il Principe del Regno Perduto (2021), both very much in the style of the first album.

Ingranaggi della Valle is a band from Rome, formed in 2010. I saw them in Genoa in 2014 when I noted they played a form of symphonic prog-jazz rock and again in Rome in 2017, where before their performance I commented to keyboard player Mattea Liberati how I thought they were influenced by Mahavishnu Orchestra – they included a couple of Mahavishnu tracks in the set!

Ingranaggi della Valle, Riviera Prog Fest Genoa, 18th May 2014

LatteMiele 2.0 is the latest incarnation of the 70s keyboard-led trio Latte e Miele formed in Genoa, though they no longer have any original members. Their most recent album Paganini Experience (2019) is a paean to Niccolò Paganini, one of Genoa’s most famous sons, and features the playing of the incredible Elena Aiello. I was fortunate enough to see the album’s live launch at the Porto Antico Prog Fest that year.

LatteMiele 2.0, Porto Antico Prog Fest Genoa, 18th July 2019

It wasn’t until I revisited the subject for a playlist in August 2021 I realised I’d omitted a number of acts from the 70s present in my collection, including Family, Henry Cow and Kansas. Violinist Hoshiko Yamane has been a member of Tangerine Dream since 2011 and there are still more bands from the modern era I’ve missed out. What is indisputable is that the violin and viola appear in a wide range of acts, spanning the entire spectrum of the genre, so there’s no doubt in my mind: the violin is a prog instrument.

Tangerine Dream, Union Chapel, 24th April 2018

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