Classical music: To Jimi with love, Nigel

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The Independent Culture
EVERYTHING ABOUT Nigel Kennedy's music flows from his being a preposterously brilliant violinist who can hold an audience spellbound. Whatever the stage act - and the fake accent that gives itself away when he laughs - one stroke of the bow and he's got you. He might as well play "Look at Me"; it will still be better than 99.9 per cent of other violinists' Beethoven concertos.

The key to his Experience, "inspired by the music of Jimi Hendrix", is: look at Nigel. On a superficial level the show now touring and out on CD is a whitewashing job on a great black musician. But this is very different from the Kronos Quartet's sterile Hendrix transcriptions, which reduce his numbers to looted heritage objects, because only on a superficial level does it have much to do with Hendrix at all.

Anyway, you take Kennedy with a pinch of salt when he calls Hendrix "important" - as though nobody had noticed. The importance of Hendrix for him is as a trigger. The original numbers, and a few big moments of the guitar solos, set off another kind of music, part composed, part improvised, more like a jazz-inflected version of English pastoral than anything directly from America. Kennedy as Grappelli-meets-Menuhin, really: when he played a song of his own as encore it sounded much the same.

The band has a line-up of eight. Its core is a trio of violin, John Etheridge's acoustic guitar and Rory McFarlane's bass, with substantial, largely self- effacing input from the flautist and fellow maverick creator Dave Heath, a co-producer of the album. Two cellos, another guitar and an oboe mostly add colour. The numbers - just seven in the 90-minute main programme - build up from free rhapsody into tightly worked and catchy grooves.

Over it all soars the violin, with a spectacular and comprehensive display of what it alone and not the electric guitar can do. The effect is like a remix. Modal melodies translate into echoes of Delius and Vaughan Williams, a Lark Ascending at the start of "Little Wing". Kennedy presses quite hard and uses some distortion when he plays Hendrix in quotes, but however excited he gets, he can't go over the edge; the further from the original, the better.

Some of the more rambling numbers could do with a good edit, but the evening builds up strongly and though at first the Festival Hall audience didn't know what to make of this strange personality, they warmed to him completely.

Where next? Time to work with some living black musicians, maybe. What's also "important" is that Kennedy, wanting to take new music to this audience, chooses not to commission the usual suspects from the composing fraternity. It's a very public statement by a perceptive musician about where musical creativity is going, and if we are wise we should listen to him.