Being a rebel is in my nature says Ipswich Regent-bound violinist Nigel Kennedy
He’s seen as both the black sheep of the classical world and one of Britain’s most important violinists. All Nigel Kennedy cares about is the music. He talks to entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE about his career, his critics and why he’s loving life right now
KENNEDY isn’t one for playing by the rules. He’s a self-confessed rebel, a natural improviser incapable of just standing up and following a score every time.
Look at his back catalogue.
Over the last decade he’s recorded Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Mlynarski and Karlowicz as well as putting his personal stamp on music by Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and Kate Bush; never mind performing on stage with both the Who and Jeff Beck.
Then’s there’s his exploration of traditional klezmer music with the band Kroke from Poland, where he has a home, and the roots of modern jazz on 2006’s Blue Note Sessions album.
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“Being a rebel is in my nature; it definitely comes naturally and I’ve always had it. I hate authority and have always hated being told what to do,” he says.
Something he proved when he joining Stephane Grappelli on stage at Carnegie Hall aged just 16 against the advice of his classical teachers at Juilliard.
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“If I had listened to my teachers in New York, who told me playing jazz at Carnegie would be professional suicide, I would never have played with Stephane. Can you imagine being invited to play with a genius like that only to insult him by telling him it wouldn’t be possible?
“I went backstage to explain to him what the teachers had said, but he just gave me some whisky and I went on stage anyway. One of the great experiences of my life.”
That rebellious streak extends into the studio. Kennedy makes no secret of preferring the immediate appeal of live performance, often recording entire works or movements in a single take to recreate the feeling.
“I hate doing loads of takes in the studio. It can produce a false, lifeless, clinical result. I once chopped the arm off my jacket during an EMI video session so they would have to use the longer takes.”
A boy prodigy and one of the world’s leading violin virtuosos, he’s been described as one of the most important violinists Britain has and is the best selling classical violinist of all time.
Many artists would let talk like this go to their head; not Kennedy who says he’s just does what he’s driven to do.
“I get called a lot of names - good and bad! I really don’t care as long as people enjoy the music.”
He doesn’t even read reviews of his recordings and performances. While respecting people who write about music, particularly as they generally seem to love it, he avoids being guided or affected by what people write; calling it a dangerous path to follow as a musician.
Probably just as well. Given his problems with rules it’s no surprise his career has had its controversies.
Kennedy’s been attacked for his approach to classical music, dubbed a “Liberace for the Nineties” and criticised for his clothes and so-called “mockney” accent instead of the Received Pronunciation he had when interviewed as a child in 1964 on the BBC’s Town and Around.
Doesn’t it irritate him that people concentrate on this rather than his music?
“No, not at all. I was born in Brighton and moved to Birmingham when my mum, who spoke with quite a posh accent, remarried. I would take the p*** out of me if I wasn’t me too,” he says.
Back in 2010 a national newspaper ran a story in which he suggested he couldn’t do his job without smoking cannabis, needing it to relax.
“The report was probably reflecting what I’d said. I definitely don’t drink or smoke before playing but I make no secret of the fact that I like to party after gigs,” says the award-winning violinist, whose take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons remains the best selling classical record of all time.
There have also been times when it looked like his career may be over.
It took a long time for him to get back into playing after breaking his arm in 2006. More serious was a neck infection in the early 1990s which forced him to completely withdraw from public performance; successfully returning to the international concert platform five years later.
“I took up the cello and played more piano. I saw a lot of films and went to the theatre. It was a very liberating and enjoyable time for me, but it was kind of inevitable that I would return.”
Studying at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music, Juilliard in New York with Dorothy DeLay, all the success he’s had in the charts and on stages around the world; does he sometimes just stop and pinch himself?
“I’m very aware what a very privileged position I am in, being able to do the best job in the world and have a great time doing it,” says Kennedy, who comes from a musical family.
His grandfather and father were cellists and his grandmother and mother both pianists. He never considered doing anything else with his life.
“I was practically born under the piano - my mother used to put me in a basket under her piano when she practised and taught. The rhythm of her life and music was with me right from the beginning and it’s probably why I love loud, bassy music.”
If he could go back in time and talk to the ten-year-old who picked out Fats Waller tunes on the piano after hearing his stepfather’s jazz records what advice would he give him?
“Play some Fats Waller on the violin - which is exactly what I’m doing next,” reveals the Aston Villa fan.
Don’t be surprised if he’s wearing his team shirt when he comes to Ipswich’s Regent Theatre tonight.
At 2010’s Przystanek Woodstock Kennedy’s orchestra all wore one while he directed the crowd in the team’s chants. Now all converts, he says, they even rehearsed their last tour at Villa Park and went to a couple of matches.
Getting to games isn’t easy with him splitting his time between his homes in the UK and Krakow, where he lives with his Polish-born wife of ten years, Agnieszka,
“I’m spending a lot more time in the UK at the moment because I’m recording and working here a lot. I love both places. Krakow is an amazing city - it is a second home to me.
“[I enjoy] the lifestyle, the people and the fact people play music because they truly love playing. There’s a lot of jazz out there - they take it very seriously.
“I also love the countryside. I run and hike every day and it really is a piece of heaven. We have a cabin in the mountains and I hide myself away and do most of my writing there.”
Kennedy was originally meant to tour last September but had to reschedule due to recording commitments following his exclusive contract with Sony.
He’s currently working with the Orchestra of Life - an ever-changing group of players who feel as at home improvising as playing straight classical music as he does - on a new recording of the Four Seasons “re-write”.
Their interpretation will be pretty different, promises Kennedy, involving all kinds of different instruments to the normal orchestra on stage.
He’s also brought in the electric percussionist from Massive Attack, Damon Reece, to provide the rhythmic backbone and his band will also join him on stage.
The tour also marks the world premiere of Kennedy’s new piece the Four Elements, composed for the Orchestra of Life and voices.
A highly descriptive composition inspired by the elements of earth, water, air and fire, it apparently takes the listener on a journey of exhilaration, contemplation and celebration.
“I have some amazing vocalists interpreting the music, which embraces all the music which I love and which inspires me.”
Kennedy is clearly enjoying his music more than ever; saying it’s become a deeper experience, allowing him to savour the moment more and think about now rather than the future or the past.
“I’m enjoying it more now because I’m playing exactly what I want to play when I want to play it. I’m not constricted by the concerto circuit, where a musician is frustratingly given just one rehearsal session at most before insulting the audience by giving them an unprepared performance.
“If I do perform a concerto, I insist on at least two days’ rehearsal with the orchestra. If an orchestra’s administration doesn’t want to give me the rehearsal time, I just tell them where to stick the concert. It’s very liberating.”
Spoken like a true rebel.