Musician Spotlight: Jonathan Mueller

The Jazz Influence with Jonathan Mueller

This season we invited Louisville Orchestra musicians to write an essay on a topic of their choice for our program magazine. March’s program highlights JONATHAN MUELLER, violist for the LO. Jonathan talks about his love of improvisation and its connection to jazz.  Hear more from Jonathan at the CONCERT TALK before each of our “The Jazz Influence” performances on Friday and Saturday, March 8 + 9.

As we hurry through our busy lives, we often try to slow down and “live in the moment.” We do yoga, meditate, keep a journal or listen to music. For professional musicians, though, it seems that our whole profession is an exercise in mindfulness. We spend countless hours practicing minute details. When we rehearse, we put all our focus into playing in-sync. We watch, listen and react to all that is surrounding us. Even so, we are reading music that was written by someone else, from another time, under different circumstances. To find a style of music that is entirely “in the moment” one must search no further than Jazz. Improvisation, the bedrock of Jazz, is the act of playing something spontaneous. It is music that is made up on the spot. Nothing is written down. It comes entirely from the mind of the musician.

I grew up in a musical family (father plays guitar, mother plays piano, older sister plays violin and younger brother plays cello), and began taking violin lessons through the Suzuki method when I was 6. The Suzuki method stresses aural skills through repetitive listening, so my musical ear continued to grow as I progressed through the Suzuki repertoire. The one thing that wasn’t emphasized in the Suzuki method was improvisation. My interest in that didn’t begin until I switched to the viola at age 13.

It was around that time that I began to appreciate improvisational rock music from the 1960s (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix were among my favorites). Then in 1995, I stumbled upon the band Phish. Unlike most rock or jazz groups where one person solos over the rest of the band, Phish perfected a form of group improvisation. There“jamming” involves active listening by all of its members to create segments of music created entirely on the spot.

By the late 1990s I began jamming with fellow musicians from my high school and was soon sitting in with their bands at live shows. As I entered college, I continued to collaborate with musicians that had similar interests in improvisational music and even took a jazz improvisation course at Indiana University with the David Baker.

Since joining the Louisville Orchestra in 2006, I have been fortunate enough to showcase my improvisational skills on a few occasions. In 2009, I, along with a few fellow musicians, performed solos in the last movement of the Voodoo Violin Concerto by Daniel Bernard Roumain. Then in the spring of 2017 I played a solo on amplified viola during Teddy Abrams’ arrangement of Uptown Funk at Ben Folds’ Louisville Orchestra concert.

It has been a blessing to perform with my esteemed colleagues in the Louisville Orchestra for the past 12 seasons. They inspire me daily and have always supported my love of improvisation. I must also give my appreciation to Teddy Abrams. His free spirit and shared love of improvisation has brought much-needed
excitement and variety to many Louisville Orchestra concerts. Thank you, Louisville, for supporting new and exciting styles of music and encouraging YOUR orchestra to strive to be the most interesting one in the world.

~Jonathan Mueller