Music interview: Nigel Kennedy

Nigel Kennedy
Nigel Kennedy
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The enfant terrible of British classical music is returning to the stage with something different. Duncan Seaman spoke to Nigel Kennedy.

It was 20 years ago that Nigel Kennedy, one of classical music’s most recognisable – and bankable – stars, made headline news by announcing in his inimitable style that he was quitting concert halls, saying he no longer wanted to perform “dead geezers’ music”.

For five years the violinist, best known for his 2m-selling recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, retreated from the public eye, appearing only occasionally to jam with friends such as the jazz guitarist John Etheridge at his local pub in Malvern.

When he did return, in the late 1990s, it was on his own terms, playing his own music and that of rock mavericks Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.

Subsequent forays into the classical repertoire have been much more of his own choosing.

Today, Kennedy, now 56 years old, stands by that act of artistic rebellion.

“It was great to get away from,” he says. “I’d been playing dead geezers’ music for so long – then I went and played music by another dead geezer like Jimi Hendrix, but at least he was just about still twitching.”

Being away from the music industry, he says, “did give me that sabbatical to write my own music”.

“People in the industry were frustrating, trying to get me to do the same thing over and over again. I had to ascertain a balance in my musical output. It worked – I’m now playing as much classical music as I wanted to do but also playing jazz. I’ve got a certain amount of time to meet interesting people and do stuff.

“At one time I was doing 120 gigs of one type of music a year; with the travelling either side that equals 300 days. I had no life to do anything else.”

Kennedy’s latest concert tour – and accompanying album, Recital – combines his love of Bach with that of jazz composer Fats Waller.

He’s caused a stir in recent times by suggesting that many modern musicians had manoeuvred Bach into “a rarefied and effete ghetto” by performing his work without passion.

“I think there’s no denying that he is one of the most intellectually accomplished composers,” he explains, “but if that was all he had to offer I don’t think anyone would remember his music at all.

“It’s a spiritual thing. He was working for the church for much of his career. There’s such a strong spiritual and philosophical element to his music.

“It’s not just about Bach but music in general. If I wanted to be bored I would do mathematics. Conservatoires teach them in a technical way. But music suffers if it’s presented in a self-conscious, intellectual way. It’s like seeing some footballers 
doing it technically correctly; there’s no invention left in there at all.”

He would rather “someone like Glenn Gould or Pablo Casals than someone who says this is how it was done in the 1700s using bow techniques, it’s so boring”.

It’s the same with expert chefs these days, he says. “It’s a modern epidemic that people have got to know everything that goes into music or food. I let it wash over me. I enjoy the central effect of it.”

For Kennedy, the joy of performing is “contrast and intensity and enjoying the moment with people who have spent an evening to come out and hear you.

“It makes every night a unique thing,” says. “We’re playing in Leeds but the night before that we’re in Newcastle – two completely different audiences. A Monday night is different from a Sunday night. There are different things about every evening. The positive thing about music is how it gets everybody together. You can have your feet on the ground but your head is in the sky. It’s the best of both worlds, man.”

Fats Waller provides an interesting contrast.

“He is a fantastic writer in every way. He was such an amazing keyboard player, like Bach. But where Bach is serious and philosophical, with Fats Waller it’s impossible to hear his music and not hear the good time he had making it.

“I love a lot of music that has fun in it,” he adds.

“I was watching television the other day and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band came on. It was genius. They were taking the p*** out of themselves and everyone around them. Fats Waller was like that. I love that aspect of music – not only can we be serious but a good time is permissible. I like to try to become a better musician, to keep improving. Spontaneous moments keep it alive.”

That fun approach to music is something he’s obviously found in Poland.

“It’s a fantastic place because the people work really hard but they also play hard. I like to party but I also like to work really hard. There’s a synchronicity in the attitude of these guys and myself.”

His present band comprises the Polish percussionist Krzysztof Dziedzic, Palestinian bass player Yaron Stavi and German guitar player Jarek Smietana. “It’s a great band,” he says.

“They’re capable of the most sophisticated playing but they also have the ability to have a good time while they are playing. It’s a good mirror of what Fats Waller was like.”

Overall, he seems happy with the way things have worked out – thanks to that pivotal decision two decades ago.

“I feel very privileged and lucky to be involved in music,” he says. “I’m able to do it 99 percent on my own terms. It helps me to give more to the situation with my fellow musicians and the audience who are genuinely enthusiastic and enjoying it. The fact that people come and hear gives you the best kind of energy, you have something to give, it’s a lucky thing. To be in this type of position everything is brilliant.”

A prodigious taste for jazz

Nigel Kennedy was a child prodigy, picking out Fats Waller tunes on his piano after hearing his stepfather’s jazz records.

After attending the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music, he went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York. He first performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall when he was just 16 and made his debut recording in 1984.

His recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is one of the best-selling classical works ever.

Nigel Kennedy presents Bach and Fats Waller, April 28, Leeds Town Hall, 7.30pm, £29.50.