The ever-eccentric Nigel Kennedy entered on stage in trainers, combat trousers, a pirate shirt with a shiny black jacket, and his staple punk hairstyle. Dressed as a rebel, his cheeky-chap persona grabbed the attention of the audience at Colston Hall for a night of Bach and Fats Waller in one.

Nigel Kennedy © Paul Marc Mitchell
Nigel Kennedy
© Paul Marc Mitchell

The set was different to that of most normal concerts. Kennedy had blue and pink bands of lighting adorning the back curtains, an illustration of him either side of the stage acting as two screens and a Perspex semi-circular wall in which Kennedy and his three Polish musicians played. All aspects of the concert were deliberately coordinated to match the two colours of the football club Aston Villa. Even the illustration on stage and programme were themed in blue and burgundy. Rather than all the loudspeakers and huge orchestra of his last tour, this time things were kept simple, and not an electronic instrument was in sight.

In the programme, the concert had been set in two parts, of which the first was entirely Bach and the second part Fats Waller – a fairly straightforward contrast of styles. Kennedy not only played jazz and classical music, but also fused them together in an impressive way, using other styles. This fusion of two sounds was mixed intricately with more traditional Celtic music, similar to the style that Kennedy composed for his Four Elements last year, and even a reggae-inspired sound as well. His two main inspirations for the Bach half of the concert were the Partita no. 3 in E major and the Sonata no. 2 in A minor, though, ever adventurous, Kennedy diverged a little from the actual programme.

Nigel Kennedy arranged all the pieces, and none of the performances were straight-laced. He played a particularly beautiful arrangement, simply named “Allegro”, that was inspired by the Allegro in Bach’s Second Sonata. It opened with punchy chords on the violin and what can only be described as a “walking basso continuo” played by Yaron Stavi on the double bass. This Baroque-rock piece wove in and out of more classical themes to a style that closely represented the swing era of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. In fact, the whole concert closely echoed Grappelli’s nod to the classical world and reminded me of his own classical–jazz fusions. The Bach had not been simplified, but perhaps needed to be interwoven more carefully into the jazz, as the changes of style did feel a bit abrupt in some of the pieces. There were some wonderful solo violin moments in the Allegro, where Kennedy demonstrated his true talent, but perhaps not to his full potential as a performer.

Despite trying something new, it was clear that Kennedy still wasn’t focusing on what he is good at, and there was more energy in his jazz – his simplistic playing with the band was more on-form than his Bach. He does deserve credit for managing to reach out to a wide audience base via his eclectic programming. I only wish that he hadn’t become too complacent – an evening with Kennedy not only means embracing his music, but his boyish personality too. The charm would have worked, but at times he seemed to feel too confident for the level of his performance. His performance of the snippets was earnest and full of energy, yet some of the double-stopping felt a little macabre in execution. He was spot-on with the notes but some of the bowing felt too heavy handed and harsh at times.

It was difficult to hear and see guitarist Rolf Bussalb and I would have liked him to have more presence. He was partly muffled by sitting with his left side to the front of the stage so his guitar was facing away from the audience, and the Perspex screen was cutting off the sound to the right-hand side of the audience. Bussalb played some excellent fast passages that passed between violin and guitar, but it was a shame that the sound was quite projected far enough and became a strain on the ears.

The encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 5 was a true example of Kennedy’s mastery of the violin, though, like the rest of the concert, the performance was only in snippets. Accompanied by a swing-style beat from his band and Krzysztof Dziedzic on a single drum, Kennedy played all sorts of variations, stopping and walking through the audience and even singing a song part of the way through.

Overall, this made an entertaining concert with a take on classical music that hasn’t been tried for a while. I would still hope that Kennedy won’t lose faith in the classical world, but absorb it into more of these kinds of concerts.

****1