Review: Nigel Kennedy at the Vortex

Nigel Kennedy – Vortex, Feb 3rd 2012
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. Copyright 2012. All Rights Reserved

Nigel Kennedy
(Bach meets Fats Waller at the Vortex, Friday 3 February 2012; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

In the tiny confines of a tightly-packed, buzzing Vortex, Nigel Kennedy shared his love of the music of Bach and Fats Waller. The irrepressible Nigel and his élite Polish trio rose to the occasion and turned it in to a really special event – entertainment and inspiration driven by an intense energy, but above all, phenomenal musicianship which drew its expression from many different formats.

At times it could have been the Hot Club of Kraków, with the shade of Kennedy’s early mentor Stephane Grappelli never far away. Jarek Smietena, a legend in Polish jazz, the “master of guitar from Kraków”, assuredly assumed the mantle of the violinist’s foil, much as Django, or latterly Martin Taylor, had done with Grappelli. Stavi, the large, avuncular bassist had the lightest of touches which, combined with the dynamic restraint of Dziedzic’s brushes-only percussion, brightly echoed Loussier’s explorations, improvising around Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with a natural grace.

But it was the raw edge and concentration of Kennedy’s solo Bach interpretations that made the earthiest, most immediate connection with the heart. It took only seconds for Kennedy to silence the audience as, eyes closed in concentration, he tripped from the light formality of a dance step to a near stationery pace where the majesty of each note was stated with moving deliberation. Hinting that he, too, was transported by the riches uncovered in Bach’s Partitas, he finally quipped – “that puts the traffic concerns behind us.”

As Kennedy loosened up, the folk music heritage of the violin came increasingly to the fore. He could spin on a sixpence to fly into an mouthwateringly virtuosic jig, and exhorted his trio to swing with the passion of a gypsy band or a crazy klezmer combo. His sustained crescendos combined breathtaking acceleration and pace which he was able to sustain in diminuendo mode – a contradiction which encapsulated the beauty of his playing.

‘Viper’s Drag’ saw bass and drum delicately pare down Waller’s melodramatic theme to its skeletal core, only to be transformed into a bluegrass, western swing anthem as Kennedy flew into the stratospheric reaches with a dazzling, elastic technique worthy of Byron Berline, rock and roll knocking at the door. They swung lightly through ‘How Can You Face Me Now?’, and turned ‘I’m Crazy ’bout My Baby’ in to a gentle foot-tapper with Smietana picking out his notes and chordal runs with masterly confidence; in ‘Honeysuckle Rose, Stavi’s loungey bowed start was overtaken by multiple key changes and a deft application of the brushes by drummer Krzysztof Dziedzic.

Two of the young violinists in Kennedy’s Orchestra of Life, Basia Dziewiecka and the guitarist’s daughter, Alicja, joined him for stirring improvised duets, and for the final extended and unpredictable jam, he was joined by Thomas Gould, leader of the Britten Sinfonia – “don’t worry, he’s a jazzer”. They flashed ideas back and forth with such sizzling finesse that, in Django’s “Nuages”, there could have two Grappellis onstage. Miles’s trailblazing composition, “So What”, featured a superb solo from Smietana, as the rhythm section coasted effortlessly, with the violins catapulting off Yaron Stavi‘s heavy bass riff to complete the circle.

It was past midnight when proceedings finally drew to a close. Kennedy, who pointed out that he is more often in the audience than in the spotlight when he visits the Vortex, had pulled out all the stops to fashion a truly memorable night.

Nigel Kennedy: violin
Jarek Smietana: guitar
Krzysztof Dziedzic: drums
Yaron Stavi: double bass
Guest – Thomas Gould: violin

The concert raised money for the Vortex’s Steinway Fund. Vortex Jazz Foundation

Categories: Uncategorized

5 replies »

  1. Dear all,

    I was there and it was great!
    Time flew and I dreamed about the music I had just heard all the way back to Wimbledon on the night buses!
    (He is worth it!)

    I will be at the Royal Festival Hall on the 15th September to hear them again!
    (Shorter journey home!)

    See you there!

  2. Just wanted to add that the other featured violinist from the Orchestra of Life was Barbara “Basia” Dziewiecka. She joined Nigel Kennedy for “Melody In The Wind”, and shared the spotlight with Alicja Smietana (and Nige) on Vittorio Monti's “Czardasz”. Earlier, Kennedy had upped the ante by launching into quadruple time (on a tune that began pretty fast!), producing a glorious frenzy of bowing that turned into a kind of manic hoedown. It was wonderfully exciting; nothing that followed could match it. A memorable gig indeed!

  3. Thanks, Andy

    I would have loved to mention Kennedy's own 'Melody in the Wind', as well as the Napolitan, Monti's well-known Hungarian-style composition – which was introduced by a deadpan “it goes on a bit, but hope you like it!” (which everybody present certainly did as it took off in a true gypsy band style and had the audience clapping along with the band!), and, of course, Nigel's repartee with you, where he claimed also to “have some Belgian heritage in me – it's at the back, in a bottle!” – but that would have made for too long a review, so they were sidelined. My researches did not yield Basia's correct name, so I'm most grateful for your being able to add this;and it was Viper's Drag, indeed, that prompted the 'hoedown'. It's great that you have added those references to complete the record.

    Many thanks.


  4. Dear Andy and Geoff,
    Thank you very much for your warm words and that you enjoyed this wonderful concert. I was wanted to clarify that 'Basia' is also my real name, it is a polish diminutive from 'Barbara'- so you are both absolutely correct.
    All the best to you,

    Barbara 'Basia' Dziewiecka

  5. Since this was written, Jarek Smietana has had to have surgery to remove a brain tumour and is presently in his fourth month in hospital fighting to regain mobility and his ability to play his guitar. Send a positive thought his way. He has given so much pleasure to so many people with his guitar playing.

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