We live in a hybrid age, in which musicians don’t create the new out of nothing; they create the new from ever more artful mash-ups of divergent genres and forms. One thinks of the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with his ambitious, if sometimes clunky, forays into fields of music as varied as Brazilian bossa nova and the film music of Italian master Ennio Morricone.
But classical mixed with hip-hop? Well, that’s something you don’t hear about every day, and that’s exactly the appeal for young Las Vegas violinist Anthony Williams, intent on taking the rigorous technique of his classical training and spreading it across the freer forms of jazz and hip-hop. “I don’t want to be classified by genre,” Williams says. “While I like doing hip-hop and jazz, every piece I do is music.”
Williams started playing violin in sixth grade. It was the first time he found a setting—the orchestra—where he felt like he belonged, and he realized right away that he was a natural. He excelled at the prestigious Las Vegas Academy, racing through ever-more-difficult violin compositions. At first he planned to continue his classical studies at a conservatory, the natural path for young hot-shot violinists. But he was already looking past the limits of classical concertos.
So, is riffing over a DJ’s beats as artistically satisfying as playing a Mendelssohn violin concerto? With jazz and hip-hop, “I create my own structure,” Williams says. “I’m able to express myself more fully.”
And how does it sound? As he plays atop a Lil Wayne track in his grandmother’s North Las Vegas home, it comes off a bit like a work in progress, but that’s probably appropriate for a 19-year-old musician. His improvisatory language leans more toward classical-sounding figures than jazz lines, but Williams is not afraid to play behind the beat, which gives his improv a loping, laid-back flavor. It’s like a man in a tuxedo crashing a juke joint—pregnant with tension and possibility.
Williams graduated from the Academy in 2008. At the moment, he gigs around town, at McFadden’s, Square Apple, Black Label. He plays with any group he can find—hip-hop, jazz, R&B, even rock—or he’ll play solo, laying down violin riffs on top of tracks two local producers provide for him. He brings his violin with him wherever he goes. “I’m always prepared, at any time.”
This spring, he plans to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music, probably the most progressive, freewheeling music school in the country. Williams doesn’t lack for confidence or ambition, but he has the steady gaze of a guy who knows that, for now, time is on his side. “I have to be patient,” he says. “Success is not going to happen overnight.”