Avant-garde violinist Elinor Speirs ‘makes it up on the spot’ as classical meets jazz

This 2021Jazz and Classical Encounters Festival No. 3 taking place on 4 December at the Spier Wine Farm Amphitheatre in Stellenbosch boasts five bands which present the unusual in musical styles as well as heartfelt tributes to icons who have passed on.  A sonic tasting of some of South Africa’s best awaits. One star is hard-to-describe jazz violinist Elinor Speirs…. Or is it classical?

Getting caught in S Africa during Covid lockdown, unable to return to her New York home where she continued to pay rent for several months, South African violinist Elinor Speirs ended up staying with her family in Cape Town, instead.  Having packed for a planned three-week visit with family in March 2020, her wardrobe and jewelry became quite stretched, as did her musicality, jazz studies, and need to perform under challenging closed-venue times. 


Elinor was fortunate to find like-minded musicians and artists in Cape Town such as avant-garde saxophonist, Ntshuks Bonga, up-and-coming jazz pianist, Brathew van Schalkwyk, stellar improvising dancer Gita Galina, and phenomenal spoken word artist, Kitso Seti. Academically accomplished, Elinor holds a BMus(hons) degree in classical violin from London’s Royal Academy of Music, a master’s in jazz performance from NYU, and a Doctorate in jazz performance from New England Conservatory of Music, Boston. 

https://i0.wp.com/www.alljazzradio.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Brathew-van-Schalkwyk-credit-Gregory-Franz.jpg?resize=266%2C178Brathew van Schalkwyk-credit Gregory Franz

When Speirs first got to New York she thought it would take about a year to transition from classical to jazz violin: “I had a typical western classical mindset that said if you can play classical, you can play anything. But I learned that that is certainly not the case. Jazz is a complicated, beautiful, multi-layered art form. It requires a huge amount of musicianship and training and I think people should be made aware of those realities… through education.. and through the media. Speirs wrote her doctoral thesis on John Coltrane’s album Ascension (1965), a watershed moment in Coltrane’s musical journey and career that saw him transitioning to free and avant-garde jazz. This work in combination with her revelatory performances and recordings with renowned free music guitarist, Joe Morris, has solidified her appreciation for and dedication towards avant-garde jazz: “I love avant-garde jazz as I am able to bring all that I am musically to the table: all my classical techniques, all my jazz understanding of rhythm and harmony, all my work with contemporary classical extended techniques, all my structural ideas as composer… it really is a demanding genre, for the player and for the listener, but the rewards are endless for both.”  

Working with her newly formed South Africa-based quintet, she has extended the invitation to use multiple styles and skills to all the members of her band. One such skill, comprovising, or improvising a spontaneously composed idea, is extended in this setting so that all members are required to work together to build a tapestry that is at once spontaneous and structured. Speirs’ quintet is made up of seasoned jazz musicians, each with considerable performance and compositional skills of their own. 

Her Cape Town-based quintet which will perform at Saturday’s Festival:  Brydon Bolton on bass, Brathew van Schalkwyk on piano, Jonno Sweetman on drums and Mark Fransman on saxophone.   A daring lot, all seasoned to venture into refreshing new vistas with Speirs’ three musical styles of classical, jazz, and avant-garde.  During hard lockdown Speirs recorded her first solo improvised album, Carbon Fibre, which can be streamed on Bandcamp. She has an enormous array of videos online, however, from performances in New York, Boston, Copenhagen, Cape Town, and South Korea which can be found here: https://www.classicjazzviolin.com/media. Her most recent video, a completely improvised duo, was broadcast on South Africa’s SABC TV live Expresso Morning show with pianist van Schalkwyk. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=5KKNR1jCs60

“We were going to play Brasaffa!, one of my original tunes that combines Brazilian and South African jazz idioms, but we realized it wasn’t going to work without a rhythm section. I love taking risks and I was so excited about the idea of upping the ante, heightening that risk by improvising with no parameters, live on national television! Initially, the idea was not very warmly received but in the end I think everyone in the studio that day loved that piece the most!  


The violin isn’t the most common instrument in jazz and it is only with more recent developments in string amplification that this instrument can be heard in this combination. Considering that the saxophone became popular due to its timbrel proximity to the violin (not to mention its cheaper cost) it is almost fitting that the violin should reclaim its place – as one of the founding voices of New Orleans jazz.  

Growing up in Cape Town and schooled at Westerford High School, Speirs rose to the peak of her classical performance career in London, but upon returning home to South Africa, found herself migrating to other musical genres including klezmer with Matthew Reid and Flamenco with Saudiq Khan.  Almost eight years in the USA crystalized her taste for all things improvisation, which one will hear soon.

See her website at http://www.classicjazzviolin.com.   Her videos can be viewed on YouTube:

‘Throwback’ with Brathew van Schalkwyk     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnuIVu6mNp8https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnuIVu6mNp8 

On Tour with the Mina Cho Jazz Quintet,  Simply Love You – Mina Cho – Once in a Blue Moon – Seoul   https://youtu.be/d1k61cGIXpQ

Bach Partita No.3 in E Major – Recomprovised https://www.facebook.com/537504929/videos/10156233918984930/

What to expect at the Spier 2021 Festival?  Inspired by John Coltrane’s multi-movement album, A Love Supreme, Elinor Speirs’ Suite for Jazz Quintet consists of four self-contained movements, ThrowbackBounceTwelve Apostles and Four. Each is an original composition that strives to combine classical, jazz and avant-garde jazz idioms in new and fresh ways. 

The Spier Program starts with a first act at 12.30pm. The last act starts 7.45pm.  Festival tickets:  R565 –one ticket; R1790 – for two tickets and includes picnic 

Festival and accommodation tickets: R 3450 – for two – in a signature room at Spier Hotel – includes breakfast, picnic basket and festival tickets
Booking links:  https://qkt.io/bVRCPv or  www.quicket.co.za

(Thanks to the virtuoso, Elinor, for editing with worthy additions and clarity about her favorite subject)

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