Nigel Kennedy – Recital
(Sony 88765447272 CD Review by Matthew Wright)
It can be difficult, sometimes, to puzzle out Nigel Kennedy’s musical identity. His recording career – an important part of it – has certainly been successful: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with 2.4 million album sales, is the best selling classical instrumental album ever, and his 1984 recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto is widely considered the finest on record.
Jazz has come late to his discography – his first recording was the 2006 album The Blue Note Sessions – but it’s always been part of his performing career; his appearance with Stéphane Grappelli at the Carnegie Hall at the age of 16 was a career breakthrough, though also, potentially, a fork in the road. His teachers at the Juilliard School are said to have warned it would ruin his classical career (though it hasn’t hurt his record sales).
Kennedy’s sleevenote introduction to Recital, his second album for Sony – after the switch from his long-term label EMI in 2011 – gives some idea of why he gets under the skin of the classical establishment. Fats Waller, he suggests, is an antidote to a musical world full of ‘serious looks with no depth and smooth smiles with no humour’.
The album is dedicated to Grappelli and Menuhin (one of the few classical performers exempted from Kennedy’s accusation of snobbery), and there’s a clear sense of Kennedy’s having both absorbed and inherited both men’s musical legacy.
This album goes, self-consciously, on a journey, it’s one that reflects the range of his recent touring and, more importantly, the extraordinary stylistic and generic variety his work has now accumulated. Whereas Blue Note Sessions – recorded with jazz talents including Joe Lovano, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette – combined bop, blues and Kennedy’s own compositions in a coherent jazz line-up, Recital wears its influences like polyglot luggage labels on a globe-trotter’s battered suitcase.
His four takes on Waller all share an exuberant sense of fun. ‘Sweet and Slow’ is the most faithful homage to Grappelli’s stylish lyricism; ‘I’m Crazy ’Bout my Baby’ adds Rolf Bussalb’s athletic guitar playing, with Kennedy guesting on ghostly celeste; ‘Viper’s Drag’ begins sounding like Grappelli, before heading west with some madcap country-esque torrents of virtuoso violin. The strangest, and arguably least successful adaptation is ‘How Can You Face Me Now?’, which starts, like the others, as a recognisable homage to Grappelli, but morphs, bizarrely, into a kind of hoedown, finishing with an intrusive bellowed ‘Oi’ and ‘yeah’ from the players.
Beyond Waller, the adaptations are even more eclectic. On ‘Take Five’Kennedy gives Brubeck an interesting Eastern spicing, with echoes of Ravi Shankar, while there’s also a Celtic song, ‘Out in the Ocean’, and a ruminative pair of compositions for strings and rhythm – ‘New Dawn’ and ‘Dusk’ – by Kennedy himself.
The two Bach tracks provide the album’s highlights. ‘Allegro’ opens with 30 seconds of lilting Latin rhythm (the Brazilian leg of Kennedy’s journey), into which the familiar strains of Bach’s Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin are woven. It’s a revelatory experience to find a musically effective but culturally novel reworking of such well-known music. ‘Vivace’, an adaptation of the Concerto for Two Violins, achieves a similar renewal by juxtaposing phrases from the original against what sounds like African drumming. Ironically, these two most classical of tracks contain some of the album’s boldest rhythmic invention.
For all the variety in the playing, there is a slight sameness to the mood. Most of the tracks except the new compositions are high-spirited, and sometimes the jauntiness needs seasoning. It’s a shame Kennedy hasn’t chosen any of Waller’s more melancholy songs, which would have offered a naturally helpful contrast. His choices suggest he feels that if it’s not foot-stomping fun, it’s inevitably stuffy and dull.
The borders of contemporary jazz and classical music are now quite porous, with some jazz musicians playing scored pieces, and classical musicians experimenting with improvisation as never before. Jazz, no doubt to the horror of Kennedy’s teachers at the Juilliard, is now well established in many academies and conservatoires. But for the most part it’s in contemporary work that the combination is prevalent.
By bringing together Bach, Brubeck, Waller and Shankar, Kennedy is creating an original soundscape. He describes Bach as ‘possibly my favourite composer’, and it’s here, with his decades of Bach interpretations, that he makes his most thrilling contribution, combining the Bach themes into a kaleidoscope of new and unexpected melody and rhythm.
It could be argued that Kennedy belongs to a generation of performer-composers who combine undisputed technical mastery with an infectious mass appeal. Most of Kennedy’s muses – Grappelli, Brubeck and Shankar, certainly – fit this mould, and Kennedy, one suspects, thinks he does too. And despite the occasionally forced jollity, it’s hard to deny that the sounds he creates are infectiously engaging.
Kennedy doesn’t always sound like a jazz performer, but in his customisation of other traditions he goes about business in a way which been central to jazz since James P. Johnson. He brings novelty and freshness to familiar music, and that, in itself, is a very worthwhile achievement indeed.
Kennedy’s UK tour starts in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on 24th April. The London date is at the Barbican on 14th May. Full tour list and tickets HERE.