Nigel Kennedy: True To Type

Nigel Kennedy has been shocking the classical world for years. It doesn't like as if he'll be stopping any time soon.

So you think you’re egocentric? I ask…

The question pops out of my mouth only to be met  with a long, angsty silence from the direction of Nigel Kennedy. My mind races. What if he decides that he’s hanging up his microphone and this interview is, like, so over? Or, worse still, stays and just doesn’t answer my questions? I have one of the world’s greatest violinists in front of me. Editors back at Classic FM HQ are waiting in anticipation for my Kennedy exposé, and I just asked a man with an ego the size of China if he has an ego.

We’re in Kentish Town, north London, and the whole question of ego has arisen because, well, Nigel showed up late for our interview in the way that only celebs can. From that moment our conversation took a bizarre twist as he put the boot into conductors.

“Why would you want to stand there waving a stick when you could be playing an instrument?” was his bold assertion. And there was more: “Conductors are egocentric to tell people what to do without even playing a note themselves.”

I was taken aback but began to relish playing Russian roulette with Nigel, hence why I responded by asking if he was egocentric. And now I’m debating how to explain to Classic FM’s editor that I have no interview when, from out of the roaring silence, Nigel’s face softens and he whacks my arm in a gesture that’s part matey, part a ticking off.

“Yeah I got an ego,” he barks, “but not like no conductor!” Nervy, tension-dispersing laughter follows. Our moment of crisis over, the frenetic pace that has accompanied Nigel since he showed up cranks back into overdrive.

The controversial musician is here to give the lowdown on his new recording of Mozart and Beethoven violin concertos, but he’s not going to talk about that in isolation from his other recent projects.

Nigel realised a lifelong dream in 2005 by recording with a group of jazz musicians in New York. And we’re not just talking about any old jazz musicians; Nigel worked with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette – modern jazz deities who played on the great Miles Davis’s funkiest albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The other big event in his recent life has been his move to Kraków, the hometown of his Polish wife, which has resulted in Nigel forming a serious attachment to Polish culture. His exploration of Polish folk music with local trio Kroke, East meets East, was released in 2006, while a CD of unknown 20th-century Polish violin concertos was an unexpected hit.

Obscure concertos and jazz? You can be sure that whatever you’re expecting Nigel to do, he’ll do just the opposite. For every recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons or a major classical concerto, he’s released an album of Duke Ellington or Jimi Hendrix. But this diversity hasn’t always gone down well. He was dismissed as a “Liberace for the nineties” by one-time Radio 3 controller John Drummond, and has endured a turbulent, messy marriage with the classical music establishment.

There have been trial separations – times when Nigel has forsaken the classics and ploughed his own furrow. For example, there was the time he was told to lay off jazz as it would be bad for his classical image, not to mention the damage it might do to his technique, but he went and played it anyway.

Nowadays, he is keeping himself and the establishment happy – playing his jazz (he’s claimed that from now on he’ll devote half his time to the music) and returning to the sort of core repertoire on which he built his reputation. But does his new mainstream recording mean that classical music’s teenage rebel has mellowed, or perhaps even been dragged into line?

“I wanted to do Mozart and Beethoven because in classical music the sound you make is what people hear – there’s no sound-system or backing tracks,” Nigel says, as I remind him of his statement about not “playing dead men’s music”, which caused such a brouhaha 10 years ago.

“Mozart sounded like elevator music to me and I had to find an angle that made it personal,” he continues. “My hook was to think about all the Baroque music I’d been playing and apply that energy and momentum to Mozart. There are always two vantage points from one simple melody – a joyful tune that reflects sadness. You get two emotions off the same thing.”

Now that he’s passed his half-century, does Nigel think that bringing maturity and experience to the great cornerstones of the repertoire is what older musicians should do?

“I’d like to say that about myself but there are some young cats who can play this music phenomenally well,” he says. “My teacher Yehudi Menuhin played Beethoven when he was 13 and people hadn’t heard a performance with more wisdom. It’s not only age, it’s what’s in your heart – that’s what counts. But with the passage of time, new perspectives give me  a deeper appreciation of the music.”

At last, from behind Nigel’s carefully cultivated rough-cut image, pearls of poetic wisdom are beginning to emerge.

“The repeated figures in the Beethoven have a hypnotic effect,” he continues, “and it’s a more optimistic work than most of his monster heavyweight masterpieces. There is a golden light that comes through.”

Nigel already has a long history with the concerto, which includes a 1992 recording with German conductor Klaus Tennstedt. What fresh perspectives does he bring to the work now?

“I’ve discovered it’s the rhythmic thing that really holds it together on a structural level,” he reveals. “If you just play lyrically there are many moments of beauty, but why listen for 45 minutes just for the odd beautiful moment? There’s overarching architecture in the piece; get the rhythmic impetus right and you find it.”

Using rhythmic impetus to express lyrical ideas is how great jazz musicians have always operated. Despite this bridge between the two genres, many top-ranking classical musicians have floundered in their attempts, however sincere, to play jazz.

Let’s face it, playing Beethoven and improvising with Miles Davis’s hottest rhythm section ought to be in conflict; it’s like performing a pas de deux at the Royal Ballet and then break-dancing in the street. Both traditions spring from diverse cultural roots and require distinct types of artistic approach. But Nigel seems to have successfully crossed the divide.

Has improvising with jazz geniuses changed his view of written music?

“Definitely,” he says, without even thinking. “You’re a burden on the band in jazz unless you are listening and concentrating. In classical music, it’s possible to get away with playing in a more automatic manner. Playing jazz made me realise that there’s a lot more enjoyment to be had if you listen to, and bounce off, your colleagues. When I’m improvising I draw on the heart – you can’t play this stuff without meaning it.”

A thought, cogently expressed, that cuts to the marrow of Nigel’s music-making. Forget the oafish exterior, the Johnny Rotten haircut, the “mockney” accent and all those other add-ons that make up what we’re sold as “Nigel Kennedy” – the truth is that Nigel loves music. He has reached a stage in his career where he doesn’t need to rescue unknown Polish violin concertos from the vaults or go out on a limb by playing jazz – he could tour non-stop performing The Four Seasons every night, playing up to audience expectations if he wanted.

But his endless thirst for new sounds keeps him motivated and in touch with the inquisitive teenager inside who made such an impression all those decades ago.

What still bugs him, however, is the classical music world, which he perceives as downright snotty and suffocatingly polite. But the uncomfortable reality is that Nigel needs orchestral institutions, conductors, record labels and the accompanying infrastructure. If it disappeared tomorrow his violin would be impotent to communicate with a mass audience and he’d be a lonely individual.

At the same time, the classical industry needs him – he’s one of a dwindling pool of artists guaranteed to balance the books. So it seems as if the tension between the men-in-suits and Nigel’s loose-canon tendencies that has been present from the outset of the violinist’s career is always going to exist.

Looking back, did Nigel deliberately set out to provoke?

“If something’s unbalanced I’ll try and fight for the balance,” he says. “With classical music being a closed club, opening the door was a natural thing to do if you believe in the beauty of the music. I felt I was being provoked and so I reacted to all them straight geezers.”

But Nigel’s worked with lots of “straight geezers” – Klaus Tennstedt, Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic – musicians of real quality. Surely they don’t irritate him?

“Klaus was straight, but he was a pure musician. He had no preconceptions and just wanted to make music. If the music is fulfilling then people of that standing haven’t got anything to say about peripheral things. It’s more these cats that sit behind desks who put hurdles in the way that irritate me. But musicians? I’ve got total trust in them.”

Tennstedt, the Berlin Phil and Davis’s ex-sidemen? Nigel has come a long way to find connections that others have walked past, and it all comes down to listening and trust. When on stage, he’s a man who has learnt to leave his ego in the dressing room.

The Kennedy Collection

Mozart, Beethoven: Violin Concertos
Polish Chamber Orchestra/Nigel Kennedy (violin)
Nigel’s second recording of Beethoven’s masterpiece  gives his matured thoughts on the work. He apparently  didn’t ‘get’ Mozart until recently… not that you’d believe  it listening to this first-class performance.
EMI Classics 500 2822

Polish Spirit
Nigel Kennedy (violin),  Polish CO/Jacek Kaspszyk
Nigel showcases two little-known Polish concertos. 
EMI Classics 379 9342

Inner Thought
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
Nigel plays excerpts  from works by his  favourite composers.
EMI Classics 331 0492

The Four Seasons
Berlin Philharmonic/ Nigel Kennedy (violin)
Nigel showed he was a man for all seasons with his very individual take on this work.
EMI Classics 557 6482

Blue Note Sessions
Nigel Kennedy (violin), Ron Carter (db), Jack DeJohnette (drums), et al.
The result of a lifetime’s ambition and passion.
Blue Note 357 0502