I once long ago visited my London relatives when they were recovering from a weekend at the rural retreat of two Nigel Kennedy fans. Thus I saw and heard Kennedy’s Brahms Violin Concerto video (the follow-up to his notorious package on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons). I’d much rather have heard Isaac Stern, or Wolfgang Schneiderhan—quite apart from having been put off by gimmicry and other things which helped sell the then much younger Kennedy.
The notes to the present set suggest that when an even younger Kennedy went on stage at Stephane Grappelli’s invitation, to play alongside that great French jazz violinist of the 1930s, a black mark went beside his name in the notebook of some recording company executives. Jazz, indeed? (In Wikipedia it’s Julliard professors who sniffed dismissively).
Yet Yehudi Menuhin, who founded the school for young musicians which Kennedy attended—regular curriculum plus advanced music and the time and opportunity for it—was recording at the time with Grappelli, as well as playing in concerts with him, in one of several explorations of idioms other than the one in which he was himself hot-housed as a sheltered child prodigy.
Menuhin didn’t have the broader background that had inspired his seniors Kreisler and Heifetz to take a deeply admiring interest in the, by European standards, very eccentric jazz violin playing of Stuff Smith, who loved both of these giants and was delighted to let them sit in with his band. I presume Kennedy’s unregenerate punk preferences in clothing, coiffure, and manner, and his speech defect-deepened proletarian accent would have put off executives thirty-odd years ago, more than any playing association with jazzmen. The same characteristics are now, of course, part of the image and celebrity package used to help draw people to concerts. There’s no great claim to originality in the suggestion that the present CD was planned with some thought of the same celebrity factor selling it. At the same time, Kennedy’s musical integrity is a major factor in this being a project clearly organised for the making of serious music.
Like the two members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who play sometimes very complex jazz with an ace rhythm trio as Common Ground (an excellent if demanding CD on Delmark) to balance their musical lives, Kennedy plays electric violin. As did the master jazz violinist Stuff Smith, and his belatedly recognised and very long-lived contemporary Claude Williams, once appropriate technology had been devised. This happened around 1940, when the almost forgotten Ray Perry appeared as perhaps the first player of an electric violin plainly different in sound from an acoustic instrument miked or amplified. Joe Venuti, Italian-American grandfather of the jazz violin, played the latter, and his acoustic approach inspired Stephane Grappelli in France, as well as the non-white Americans Eddie South and Ray Nance, but I suppose Kennedy relies on use of electric violin to distance himself qua jazzman, and elsewhere from here qua pop performer, from the approach standard to Bach, Brahms, Bartok et al. He might fall into stylistic mixture and dilution without that distancing factor. His electric fiddle goes very well with Lucky Peterson’s Hammond B3 organ, in a swinging dive-in track. The second track gives a first hearing to the wonderful piano work Kenny Werner contributes throughout this set, with a front line of Kennedy and Joe Lovano, or sometimes J.D. Allen on tenor saxophone.
Ron Carter and Jack de Johnette are the Rolls Royce equivalent bass and drums pair. Duke Pearson’s “Sudel”, with its fast medium-pace swing, is a decent vehicle, sparked further by Daniel Sadownick’s percussion. It would be a rare soloist who outshone Lovano or Werner on that date.
Exceptionally nice ensemble blend too; likewise on Kennedy’s ballad “Maybe in Your Dreams”, which comes next and soon demonstrates a weakness for the rapid-bowed tremolo. The fiddle-tenor blend is applied to great lyrical advantage, and Kennedy makes an impressive entrance after Lovano’s lovely solo. Then we’re back with Peterson, funk, and mellow light-heavyweight-metal fiddle, distinguished by Kennedy’s chordal and textural and harmonic developments.
“Nearly” is a composition by another string virtuoso, the set’s ultra-distinguished bassist, Ron Carter, and Kennedy again shows a gift for chordal mood-setting. Raul Midon turns up singing and scatting to great effect with his own “acoustic guitar” on the next track, with Kennedy exploring all manner of effects liable to be associated with a synthesizer, more interestingly than is usual. I suppose the rock-style guitar sounds are Kennedy?
“Stranger in a Strange Land” is another Kennedy theme, rhapsodic, romantic, with JD Allen importing a more jazz feel by developing the theme on tenor saxophone, sounding rather Spanish. Werner is exquisitely lyrical, Kennedy more interesting when the percussion sparks in. And then there’s Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father”, with the lovely Lovano-Kennedy blend, and some funky fiddle. I see from a review of Kennedy’s London performances with a Polish band promoting this set that I’m not the only person who thinks his jazz playing is better when he has a strong underlying rhythmic pattern to work against. A certain lack of idiomatic pulse? Lovano is relaxed, Werner amazingly in command, flow and rhythm.
The pianist donates a magical intro to Duke Pearson’s “After the Rain”, and after Kennedy’s lyrical theme statement, the melody is caressed by him and Lovano together, the latter’s brief solo putting the violinist really on his mettle. It’s the other guys (Werner and Lovano are close contemporaries of Kennedy’s) who make this one.
Ivory Joe Hunter was a schooled minor jazz pianist who, in a sometime big R&B career, composed things white country performers could deliver, like the potentially sentimental “I Almost Lost My Mind”. Kennedy uses classical discipline, Peterson the tonalities of Hammond B3, and Allen a remarkable lyrical control of tenor saxophone to keep this one interesting. The multi-noted and block-chord organ work in an extended solo demonstrate Peterson’s quality, presumably feeding Kennedy ideas for a solo in which he emulates both Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, (blues harmonica as well as blues guitar evocations). Kennedy finishes with chordal playing, which suggests that apart from having at times recorded with sidemen from Duke Ellington’s orchestra, Hunter wasn’t averse to borrowing elements of “Mood Indigo”.
De Johnette’s cymbals wash around the opening to his “Song for World Forgiveness”, and the almost Indian sounds made me wonder whether that was Kennedy, or Ron Carter bowing violin lines on his bass fiddle. Werner uses a lot of the piano as Kennedy develops out of tempo, initially rising to an electronic climax, and then very, very quietly and ever more softly completing a diminuendo with the beautiful intonation of Carter’s bass.
If Kennedy has any serious limitations as a jazz player, certainly this set was duly organised to make the best of everything available. I can only guess what I’ll think about it when I get round to taking the CD out again in a couple of months for a violin-playing friend.