"I always loved Charlie Parker," says champion fiddler Jamie Laval. If Bird doesn't sound like a typical influence for a fiddle pro, it's because Laval isn't the stereotypical classicist.
"I had a long flirtation with jazz while I was in college," he explains. "I ended up playing classical music for years, but Charlie Parker was always my favorite because he stretched the boundaries of music and still kept it accessible and sweet."
These are the same traits the Seattle-based Laval hopes to bring to Scottish and Irish music, expanding the scope while keeping the traditional Celtic roots.
Calling from the road, Laval is pressed for time but happy to talk shop. He is currently in the midst of a tour that will bring him and his group to San Diego for a series of shows, including the Folk Alliance Conference at the Town & Country Hotel Feb. 26-28, and a March 3 show at local jazz dive, Dizzy's.
Originally a concert violinist, Laval became so entranced with the sound and rhythms of fiddle playing that over the past decade he's slowly phased-out classical music from his repertoire. It has proven to be a wise move, with a slew of sold-out performances and an album released last year, Shades of Green.
In 2002, he was named the winner of the U.S. National Fiddle Championship in the Scottish fiddle division. He returned to the competition in 2003 with a slightly different goal.
"I didn't actually try to win," he explains. "At this point I've definitely kind of gone beyond the traditional Scottish fiddling into something brand new, so I wasn't really a serious contender. I really just went in to show that we're well rooted in Scottish music, but we're kind of using that now for a point of departure for a kind of a new, passionate expression. For the traditional fiddle competitions, that's definitely not what they're looking for."
While Laval's main focus is his original music, he also finds inspiration from ancient sources.
"We're talking songs up to 400 years old here," he says. "I take this music and try to find the gems, living with that tune for a couple of weeks until I get it in my bones. Then we'll experiment and try to craft an arrangement that basically sounds different form where it started, but where people can still make out the melody.
"Often times, audience members that know those older tunes and hear us do our renditions remark that they never thought you could do all that with just a 32-bar melody."
Between performances by his group, Laval is a top session player ("It just comes with living in Seattle," he says), and his fiddle work can be heard just about everywhere. He's also benefited from Hollywood's greedy drive to get music for cheap.
"The movie-scoring business has gotten to be quite big in Seattle since they are a non-unionized music town," he explains. "They've gotten a lot of the work from Hollywood because it's less expensive to do it up there."
Movie buffs will find Laval's fiddling on the soundtracks to numerous movies, including Die Hard III, The Astronaut's Wife and Lake Placid. The amount of input differs on each project. For the theme to the TV show Everwood, he overdubbed atop an orchestra, working closely with the song's composer.
On the other hand, "I did a fiddle solo for the kids' movie Barney's Great Adventure," he says with obvious bemusement. "They basically they gave me bass and drums and said, "OK, play in F, and off you go.'"
One recent session clearly stands out for Laval. Contacted by a producer he'd worked with in the past, he wasn't told specifics of the gig, except that a big-time arranger from London-who had worked on Coldplay's most recent album-was in on the project.
"So I knew this was a big deal," he says. "It turned out to be sessions for Dave Matthews' Some Devil album. I ended up playing on seven or eight songs over the course of two days. "
Session players are often viewed as the workers who clean office buildings after-hours-essential, but anonymous, rarely interacting with the main artist. Laval says he was surprised by how involved Matthews' was with the session musicians.
"He had his scratch vocals down already, which we were playing along to," he explains, "but he would explain where he was going with the lyrics, for example. Even if he didn't have the lyrics finished, he'd say, "Here was the general thrust of the thing and here's probably what they're going to say.'
"So we got to spend some time talking about the songs. He was very popular with all of us because he was just so approachable."
In addition to session work, Laval and his group take frequent road trips, one of which recently found them touring Scotland. While Laval and his group looked forward to the shows, they also had a bit of trepidation.
"We were wondering how it was going to be for Americans to show up in Scotland and play Scottish music for Scots," he recalls. "Especially because we're really pushing the envelope on what is possible with this traditional music. To our pleasant surprise, they really enjoyed our performances. It was gratifying because they had no issue about "preserving' anything. They were just glad to see music progress in the new millennia."
Yet Laval says he prefers American audiences, in part because they are far less reserved. With his music's celebratory nature in mind, Laval laughs when asked about audience participation at his shows.
"That can work for and against," he says. "On the one hand, an enthusiastic audience is what every performer wants. On the other hand, our music is dance music, so a lot of times our audiences start to clap along.
"And it's sort of fun for exactly two measures. But then after that they can't quite clap in time. That's when we have a little struggle between what we know is the time signature we need to keep the rhythm going, and what the audience is contributing.
"It's like a little tug of war."
James Laval performs at the Folk Alliance Festival, Feb. 26-28 (301-588-8185) and at Dizzy's, 7:30 p.m. on March 3. $10. 858-270-7467.