Nigel Kennedy & Friends, Ronnie Scott's, London

Classical star comes across

By Sholto Byrnes
Thursday 27 March 2003 01:00
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If Nigel Kennedy's relationship with the classical world has tended to be on the prickly side, the jazz fraternity has always welcomed the violinist warmly whenever he plugs in his fiddle and reminds us what bowed strings can bring to the party. It's gratifying, too, that a bona fide superstar in another genre wants to play jazz, and that he's quite humble – well, by Kennedy standards, anyway – about it. "I first played at Ronnie Scott's with Stéphane Grappelli 30 years ago," he said. "I always hoped that one day I would play here under my own name." Monday night was that occasion, and Kennedy and his band of Poles did not disappoint.

From the opening number, which had an incomprehensible title about an Australian bird with a long nose that eats in the dirt, Kennedy held nothing back. A sprightly fusion tune very much in 1980s Michael Brecker mode led straight into a dazzling solo from the leader. Starting with quavers, Kennedy was impatient to let rip. The quavers gave way to semiquavers, demi-semiquavers and every other infinitesimal division of the venerable breve until he was sawing away, sliding into double-stopped chords, casually flicking in octave leaps and ending in an electric maelstrom after he'd used the pedals to produce a series of distorted screams. Grappelli's influence was occasionally evident, as at times were the arpeggios familiar from Kennedy's day job, but of gypsy/hot jazz there was no sign (for which we give thanks, as, like Marmite, a little of that goes an awfully long way).

The next tune showed Kennedy in rich, lyrical mode on the opening melody of Children, the second number by the admirable Polish guitarist Jarek Smietana. Perched on a stool looking like a benign cross between a Mafia don and a black market potato-vodka seller, Smietana was clearly the co-leader in this enterprise and probably the one on whom Kennedy relies if he ever suffers any lapses in self-confidence. Smietana's compositions are wonderfully over-the-top harkbacks to the exuberant excesses of fusion, veering between the pomp of Pink Floyd, tubthumping rock, and unashamed romanticism.

Mention should also be made of the singer, Z Star, whose low, throaty vocals added texture to the line-up.

With this performance, Kennedy showed he's a top-rank jazz musician. Why did it take Ronnie's so long to book him?

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