by James M. Manheim
Maybe you know that seemingly middle-of-the-road Saline has been a fertile place for fiddle music lately. Maybe you've noticed that there are Celtic musicians in the bars downtown several nights a week, and that a lot of them can really play. And of course this is a place where all the children are above average. Still, none of this can prepare you for Jeremy Kittel. If he didn't come off as so nice, he'd be a little scary.
Kittel played in the Saline Fiddlers Philharmonic and, while still well underage, sat in at local barroom jam sessions. Somewhere along the line it might have been when he appeared on Garrison Keillor's Ann Arbor Prairie Home Companion show in December 2001 people began to realize that Kittel's talent might be something of a big deal. On a slow fiddle tune, glistening with ornaments, he's riveting. Now he's a jazz major at the U-M music school, and the different traditions in which he is proficient have started to inform each other in his music.
One sure sign of Kittel's talent is that he's picked a band able to keep up with him; he can listen as well as play. Another is the way his musical personality remains sharply recognizable across genres. Whether he's playing the Irish and Scottish tunes (many of his own composition) that make up the core of his repertory, or improvising on jazz violin, or thinking out a mind-bending fusion of "Sing Sing Sing" with the bluegrass tune called "Blackberry Blossom," or even performing a fiddle-rooted classical composition, Kittel is very much himself, a quiet midwestern teenager who has a steely, elemental kind of concentration when the music starts.
At this point, hearing Kittel play offers the listener that delightful experience of being in the audience as a young musician devours vast new swaths of musical territory. But soon his musical life will become a question of direction more than talent. Already a
three-time competitor in the All-Ireland music competition, he could reach the top level of Celtic music. He could become a durable and well-paid pop phenomenon like Mark O'Connor, or he could be one of the amazingly talented fixtures of Ann Arbor's musical culture like Mr. B, with whom he shares a stage from time to time. Or he could pass the gift along as a teacher.
It's up to him. Witness the next stage of a trajectory worth watching when Kittel opens the Summer Festival Top of the Park season on Friday, June 13.
[Originally published in June, 2003.]