There's an elemental reason that the violin mostly disappeared from jazz with the rise of big bands in the mid-1930s. A bow drawn over strings is simply no match for the sonic heft and power of brass.

Among the numerous challenges faced by violinist Mads Tolling in his collaboration Saturday at the Theatre on San Pedro Square with the South Bay big band 19, the first is the daunting physics of sound projection.

"For starters, I've got to figure out how to make amplification work with the big band," says Tolling, 32, from his home in Albany. "I've got to make sure it has a big enough sound. The saxophone's tone is just much wider and bigger."

Something of a golden boy, the Danish-born Tolling catapulted into the big leagues about a decade ago after a couple of years at the Berklee College of Music. He was still an undergrad when violin star Jean-Luc Ponty recommended him for a high-profile gig with bassist Stanley Clarke. Before long, he relocated to the Bay Area to join the Turtle Island Quartet, eventually earning two Grammy Awards with the ensemble for their imaginative synthesis of post-bop jazz and European classical music.

If things seem to have come easily for Tolling -- he's also tall, athletic and conspicuously handsome -- jumping into a big band collaboration has been a lesson in humility. He's writing a program of original music to perform with 19, a project he funded with a successful Kickstarter campaign.


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While Tolling has composed a good deal of original music for his quartet, his primary creative outlet since departing from Turtle Island last year, arranging music for a jazz orchestra is a completely different kind of endeavor. Working closely with 19's director and guiding spirit, bassist Gus Kambeitz, has eased the process.

"We've talked a lot and studied some scores by Maria Schneider, Thad Jones and Duke Ellington," says Kambeitz, who's also West Valley College's director of jazz studies. "Musically, he's got it all together. He knew the ranges, but not the optimum ranges for the different sections. He gets the big picture, about the spacing of the voices and leaving room for each section, so it's not cluttered."

Tolling is just the latest jazz luminary to perform with 19, which features a steady cast of South Bay-raised players, including band directors for local schools, full-time performing musicians and guys who spend their days in high-tech valley jobs. Re-christened 19 in 2011 when it became an independent project (the name reflects the ensemble's size), the big band has existed in various forms for more than three decades, and was formerly known as the West Valley Jazz Orchestra and the San Jose Jazz Orchestra.

For Tolling, part of the draw was the opportunity to develop a book of material for collaborating with other jazz orchestras.

With Kambeitz's help, he's planning on publishing the music "and setting up dates with college and community big bands around the country, combining performances with teaching," Tolling says. "A lot of big bands want new material and are looking for original stuff."

The history of jazz violin is concise enough that Tolling is connected to almost all of it. Released last May on his Madsman label, his most recent album, "Celebrating Jean-Luc Ponty," is a potent fusion session.

On Thursday, he performs a tribute to Stephane Grappelli as part of SFJazz's Hotplate series, paying off another creative debt.

As a teen in Copenhagen, he was getting into jazz when he discovered Grappelli's music. He memorized several Grappelli solos note for note, even winning a jazz contest with a blazing rendition of "It's Only a Paper Moon," lifted from a version that Grappelli recorded with Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass and Danish bass master Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.

"I got onto a different track later, with more of the fusion and contemporary jazz sound, but I like the Manouche style, the gypsy sound," Tolling says. "It'll be fun to revisit some of the Grappelli stuff I used to be into."

He's also celebrating another jazz violinist and violist, Svend Asmussen, the 97-year-old Danish master who performed with Josephine Baker and Fats Waller before World War II.

He was a regular presence when jazz violin royalty was convened, such as Duke Ellington's 1963 album "Jazz Violin Session" (Atlantic) with Grappelli and Ray Nance.

"I visited Svend a couple of times before I left Copenhagen and played him my music," Tolling says. "He ended up giving me a bunch of his music because he was not into playing anymore. He'd recently lost his wife, was feeling really down and felt he wanted to pass it along. Now he lives half the year in Florida and he got remarried at 90."

MADS TOLLING

With big band 19

When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Theatre on San Pedro Square, 29 N. San Pedro St., San Jose
Tickets: $25-$30, 800-838-3006, http://nineteenjazz.com