Nigel Kennedy: Blue Note Sessions

The notoriously famous concert violinist may not be the jazz star here, but he contributes a lot, and has A1 jazz company.

Nigel Kennedy

Blue Note Sessions

Contributors: Nigel Kennedy, Kenny Werner, Joe Lovano, Rob Carter, Jack deJohnette
Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2006-10-14
UK Release Date: 2006-10-02

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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