Mark O’Connor’s repertoire includes jazz, classics and just about everything in between.
The three-time Grammy Award-winner will close out the 33rd annual Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival with the O’Connor Band, which is a foot-tapping, twangy bluegrass outfit that includes O’Connor’s son, wife and daughter-in-law. The 57-year-old virtuoso is an accomplished classical musician with a jazz background in addition to being a hell of a fiddle player.
His body of work speaks to that accomplished eclecticism.
French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli and fiddler Benny Thomasson helped get O’Connor’s musical journey started as a child. He’s since performed with Yo-Yo Ma, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recorded his “Americana Symphony,” and he recently toured with the popular country collective the Zac Brown Band.
O’Connor took some time to answer some questions from the Capital City Weekly via email ahead of both his festival-closing concert and a separate free jam session at TK Maguire’s Lounge Friday evening.
The correspondence has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you been to Juneau before? Either way, anything you’re looking forward to seeing or doing while in town?
I have performed in Anchorage and Fairbanks with my Hot Swing Trio and with Sharon Isbin, but I would have to check into the memory bank if I may have played in Juneau before. If I did, it has been a very long time in my past. My wife, Maggie, who’s in the Mark O’Connor Band and who has not been to Alaska before, is checking out whale watching reservations as we speak.
Looking at your discography, it seems like you’ve played with just about everybody under the sun. Do you have any favorite collaborators from over the years?
Yes I have performed and recorded with a lot of folks. In a sense every one of my 45 feature albums is a collaboration of some sort. I am celebrating my 45 albums in 45 years. About one per year since 1974 at age 12 on Rounder Rec. I would say the “Appalachia Waltz” with Yo-Yo Ma is at the top probably as it made my composition a millions-seller. My breakout album as a soloist was “New Nashville Cats” with Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, Marty Stuart and many others is also up at the top. The now iconic “Strength in Numbers” with Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer has had a huge influence out there. My collaborations with orchestras amounting to 700 performances and albums like “The Fiddle Concerto,” “Double Violin Concerto” and Americana Symphony with the great conductor Marin Alsop and the “Baltimore Symphony” has been huge for me. Back to another one of mine, I recorded the sequel “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia” with Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash. That was amazing and it has resulted in over 6 million views on my YouTube Channel. I will say that collaborating with my family members in the O’Connor Band’s last two albums and touring around the country has been second to none though. It has put a smile on my face that I can’t seem to wipe off!
Is there a difference in the way you approach a performance with the Zac Brown Band vs. Yo-Yo Ma?
There are similarities — both are huge stars with a very big entourage and carry a lot of power in the music industry. I think you are trying to figure out how can you can fit in easily, but also make an impact while you are there. Kind of scary at times, realizing that one wrong move and you are outta there, or at least that is the feeling you get sometimes. With that famous and powerful of an artist as either Yo-Ya Ma is or Zac Brown is, there is the simple fact that you are helping each other musically or artistically for sure. But they are also helping you financially so to speak and giving you access to their audience, to their powerful managements and agencies as well as production folks. It is quite a ride, and you are trying to enjoy it and be productive for as long as it lasts. Some cool music comes out of these matchups too, and that is the bonus and legacy you take with you. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself it is so incredible. Playing at Carnegie Hall with Yo-Yo or Fenway Park with Zac. It is pretty wild indeed.
I know some youngsters in Juneau are using the Mark O’Connor Method to learn to play music. What’s it like to be influencing classrooms full of young musicians? Ever get recognized by a kid because of it?
That is great to hear. Of all the projects I have undertaken it is authoring the “O’Connor Method” for violin and related string instruments that might have the biggest reach and impact. Right now tens of thousands of students are learning to play the violin using the O’Connor Method, with its creativity, American music literature, and its diversity of culture behind the music. Yes, students and their teachers and parents are coming to my concerts all over the place now. It is great to see. We have our big string camp in Charlotte in the summer and we have students coming from all over the country and parts of the world. Twenty faculty members including all of the O’Connor Band members. The Method has probably been the most rewarding work because we know that it has helped so many to enjoy and become good at music. I am really excited to hear that the Method has made its way to Juneau. Alaska, before I did myself. That is the kind of legacy that I want to create.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.