Interview: Comprovising – composing on the spot – improvising violinist Elinor Speirs and her Quintet on at Jazz and Classical Encounters at Spier, December 4, 2021

Who: Elinor Speirs –South African improvising violinist – currently in Cape Town [summer 2021/22] and then back to the USA

Latest project: The Elinor Speirs Quintet is playing at Jazz & Classical Encounters Vol 3 @ Spier on Saturday December 4, 2021Time: First act starts 12.30pm. 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: or  
Elinor Spiers on Instagram: @elinorspeirs  

South African violinist, Elinor Speirs loves the thrill of on the spot improvisation – ‘comprovizing’ – in front of an audience– collaborating with other musicians- and with the audience (obviously, not during Covid).  Considered as one of the most important improvisational violinists, prior to the pandemic, Speirs was based in the USA, in New York and Boston and gigging around the world. In March 2020, she was back home, in Cape Town, visiting family. The pandemic and lockdown halted her plans to return to the USA and she became immersed in Cape Town’s music scene- a fusion of jazz and classical. Speirs and her quintet – The Elinor Speirs Quintet – will be playing at The Jazz and Classical Encounters Vol 3, at Spier, on December 4, 2021.  Dr Speirs [she has a Masters and Doctorate in Music), tells us about life on the strings of her violin:

Suite for Jazz Quintet – by Elinor Speirs- incorporating elements from three distinct musical worlds

The Elinor Speirs Quintet is made up of Elinor Speirs (violin) Brydon Bolton (bass), Brathew van Schalkwyk (piano), Jonno Sweetman (drums) and Mark Fransman (tenor saxophone). For Jazz and Classical Encounters Vol 3, at Spier on December 4, 2021, the quintet will play – Suite for Jazz- which consists of four self-contained movements, ThrowbackBounceTwelve Apostles and Four.  Speirs: “Each movement is an original composition that strives to combine classical, jazz and avant-garde jazz idioms in new and fresh ways. The majority of artists you will hear today have had significant training in jazz, avant-garde jazz and classical music. Working with musicians adept in all three idioms was paramount to the development of my compositional style, which incorporates elements from three distinct musical worlds. It has been a delight to hear my ideas brought to life with such dexterity and authenticity. My own journey as a classical violinist, through the rigours of serious jazz and avant-garde jazz study in New York and Boston, to emerge an improviser in all three styles has been unexpected. The purpose of Suite for Jazz Quintet is to provide a vehicle for these triune stylistic abilities: to explore ways in which they might be more closely aligned, or further developed in combination.”

Improvising violinist- composing on the spot or ‘comprovising’

Speirs who is a classical trained musician and has a masters and doctorate, did not expect her music to veer off the classical path but she soon embraced the opportunity to work across genres and disciplines. Speirs: “I love to be challenged by different structures, using them as a basis to create something fresh in front of a live audience – composing on the spot or ‘comprovising’ as I’ve heard it called. Professionally my career is flourishing most in avant-garde jazz or free music: The name depends on who you’re talking to. I have recorded and performed quartet, trio and duo with guitarist Joe Morris – a very important figure on this scene. We were about to record a duo album before lockdown hit. That’s quite a huge honour – which I believe will still happen when I get back [to the USA]. I have been active in the avant-garde scenes in Boston and New York for a few years. I’ve had several important figures in avant-garde jazz and straight ahead jazz say that I must be the best improviser on violin in the world. That seemed a bit overwhelming to me but I know that I am on the forefront of the new things happening on the instrument. Violin hasn’t featured much in contemporary jazz, probably the most prominent being Zbigniew Seifert who passed away in 1979.”

Comprovising – live – on ya strings – off you go

Many of us are familiar with comedy improv and that is what Elinor Speirs has become famous for – her ability to wing it- no matter what the circumstances.  “I thought I was going to collaborate with others in Germany for an engagement, but they told me last minute my set was solo – solo violin…! I did like a Theatresports thing. I asked for word suggestions from the audience and played a ‘story’ out of the suggestions. I got some audience members to improvise with me on the piano. It was wild – but they loved it. Many said they were inspired to take up music or something else in the arts again.”

‘Straight’ jazz and jazz fusion

It is not all about improv:  “In straight ahead jazz and jazz fusion I’ve had the pleasure of performing with Mina Cho in several formations in Boston and on tour to South Korea. I’ve also had the opportunity to ‘sit in’ with Jerry Bergonzi on his original tunes in Boston. He is one of the most famous jazz teachers/tenor sax players in the world. I’ve played solos with Barry Harris’s group in Manhattan, so I’m still forging ahead with straight ahead jazz as well.”  

Classical improvisation and Brazilian jazz bands

And there is ‘straight’ classical – with some on the spot riffs: “I am experimenting with classical improvisation -taking the beginning of an unaccompanied Bach partita and improvising or improvising on the style of Mozart, or Prokofiev etc. I am always open to work with other artists in an interdisciplinary way – I believe it’s always good to challenge yourself in new ways and to take bigger and better risks too. I run a Brazilian jazz band in Boston. I’m in the process of starting one here in Cape Town- and that incorporates improvisation over a different kind of rhythm, harmony and style.”

The Elinor Speirs journey

Speirs grew up in Cape Town and went to Westerford and then after finishing school, she went Royal Academy in London. “That really put me off music so I came back and did an honours in English literature in two years at UCT.” While at school, she spent time on UCT music campus [The College of Music]. “I played a bit for UCT orchestra and in the National Youth Orchestra.” Speirs left for the USA in 2012. Then came Rona. “I was in NYC, just before Corona. I came down in March 2020 to see my dad who wasn’t doing so well. I came with my suitcase packed for three weeks and then got stuck here, under lockdown. I don’t like shopping – so I’m still living out of that suitcase. I lost all my work in NYC and Boston and watched as the virus exploded in NYC, and then hit Italy. I had to pay someone to pack up all my stuff and put it into storage…I was still on a student visa so I wasn’t eligible for the US stimulus package – so I was very thankful to be here [Cape Town], with family.”

Gigging in Muizenberg, Cape Town with Ntshuks Bonga and Brydon Bolton

“While in Cape Town, I’ve done two gigs at The Commons – a new multipurpose space in Muizenberg [at Surfer’s Corner]. The first show that I played there was with bassist Brydon Bolton, a stalwart of Cape Town’s avant-garde scene and organized by Ntshuks Bonga. It was such a delight. They are wonderful players and it was my first performance coming out of lockdown. Ntshuks is a wonderful saxophonist, active in the avant-garde scene in London. All three of us were born in South Africa but we are reconvening with the stylistic merits and artistic energies from the cities in which we usually play. We would never have met up, had we not all been in Cape Town due to Covid.  Collectively we create an unusual and rare beauty that merits a larger audience.”

Moving between the US and Africa

As to the future, Speirs is open to where her violin leads. “I am interested in dividing my time more evenly between South Africa and the US. I would like to keep learning and growing with the musicians and collaborations that have developed over there, but I would also like to act as a bridge or advocate -and partner- for the immense talent we have over here. On my visa I’m only allowed to work in music so I don’t want to return to the US before everything music-related opens up.  Performers are most active in the warmer months so what if I try to live half the year here and half the year there? I think there are beautiful things happening here in music and the arts but I also don’t want to lose my momentum in the USA. I plan to return to the US in April [2022], just as the weather starts to get cold here/warm there and then I’ll be back in SA, in September/October [2022]. “

Stringing it: Dr Elinor Speirs – South African improvising violinist – will be playing Jazz & Classical Encounters Vol 3 @ Spier on Saturday December 4, 2021. Supplied images.

❇This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Images supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: