Music

Nigel Kennedy: "TV companies are controlling what goes in the pop charts"

Curating a festival of Polish music and culture, Nigel Kennedy talks TV talent shows, solitude – and coat hangers

Nigel Kennedy

“Coat hangers? They’re aliens, man, multiplying in your wardrobe.” Nigel Kennedy is discussing the subject of phobias on BBC1’s The One Show.

“And what’s your particular fear?” asks presenter Christine Bleakley.

“Messing up the next musical bit,” he laughs, before picking up his electric violin and launching into a charged blast of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze.

It’s note-perfect of course, and exhilarating, the least we now expect from an artist who has not only become an international star, selling out concert halls wherever he goes, but someone who has resolutely followed his own musical path, gleefully kicking down cultural barriers along the way.

It’s more natural to write your own stuff, and more rewarding

He’s back in town – and at the Beeb – to do more of the same, namely promoting his new Nigel Kennedy Quintet album, Shhh! – a compelling fusion of jazz, soul and rock – and to curate a festival of Polish music at the Southbank Centre.

Clad in his ever-present Aston Villa shirt (he discusses team tactics with anyone within earshot), Kennedy is upbeat, friendly and tactile, and clearly remains tremendously passionate about making music. Indeed, having spent many years recording the compositions of others – from Bach to Duke Ellington to The Doors – on the new album he has written all the songs himself, bar one (a Nick Drake number sung by friend and neighbour, Boy George).

“In a way, it’s more natural to write your own stuff,” he explains, settling down in his dressing room after rocking the One Show sofa. “Plus, I think it’s more rewarding, to have some creative thoughts and pursue them, rather than pursuing the thoughts of someone who lived 200 years ago.”

Kennedy found fame playing the work of the masters, most notably with his 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, still the best-selling classical album of all time. But he has always had other strings to his bow – as a teenager he famously jammed with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli at New York’s Carnegie Hall, rebuffing the advice of his Juilliard School teachers – and his career has since encompassed a variety of musical projects, from playing with The Who and Kate Bush, to exploring the roots of jazz and European folk.

He’s a man immersed in music, although when it comes to courting his own muse, it turns out that he needs some solitude.

“Yeah, I have to get away,” he chuckles. “I usually go up to the mountains in south Poland. I do find it easy to write, but I need complete quiet. Then the ideas can evolve.”

Ever since marrying his Polish wife 10 years ago, Poland – and the country’s culture – has played a central role in Kennedy’s life. Dividing his time between homes in London and Kraków, the 53-year-old directs the Polish Chamber Orchestra, and has become a regular at Kraków’s jazz clubs, forming his quintet with some of the scene’s leading musicians.

As passionate about his adopted country as he is about most things, he is perfectly placed to curate this weekend’s festival of Polish culture at the Southbank Centre. A three-day musical extravaganza, it sees Kennedy and his Polish colleagues offering an eclectic programme of classical, jazz, and folk, plus other events and activities [see box]. Does he see himself as an ambassador for the country?

“I’m not pretending that I know everything about Poland,” he says. “I just want to show what I’ve enjoyed about their culture. It’s for English people to enjoy, but also for Polish people over here to see some artists they like. It’s going to be a mini-Poland at the Southbank Centre!”

People know what a great contribution the Polish have made to society over here

With immigration a hot topic in recent weeks, Kennedy is only too happy for the festival to present a more rounded view of his fellow countrymen – one that doesn’t resort to clichés about builders.

“People already know what a great contribution the Polish have made to society over here,” he remarks. “They’re good workers, they don’t cause any problems within the community, they’ve assimilated themselves fantastically well. This festival will show more of their cultural side.”

Has living over there changed him?

“Well, it’s certainly given me access to be around positive people who love playing music, and that’s really helped. I’m not saying you can’t get that in any country, but there’s something simpatico between me and Poland. “Plus,” he smiles knowingly, “they like artists over there.”

Throughout his career, Kennedy’s single-minded attitude and cheeky persona has made him something of the enfant terrible of the classical world, perhaps more so because of the regard for his talent – The Times calls him ‘astonishing’, The Daily Telegraph, ‘a violinist in a million’.

Reviewers still seek out new superlatives to describe his playing, and – true to form – he is still less than enamoured with certain parts of the classical establishment, particularly competitions such as Young Musician Of The Year.

“It’s an immature way of thinking about music,” he says. “It’s stupid to have a jury saying that one musician is better than another. Music is about working with people. These shows exclude artists from one another, and from connecting with their audience.”

  • Nigel Kennedy’s Polish Weekend

As part of the Polska! Year – a programme of events celebrating Polish culture – this weekend the Southbank Centre will be hosting a Nigel Kennedy-curated festival of Polish music, plus films, family activities, food and drink, and a violin-making workshop. Kennedy himself will be performing several times, including the UK debut of his Orchestra Of Life, a set with Poland’s legendary folk band Kroke, and his Chopin Super Group.
Sunday night’s events culminate with his World Cup Project, which will see Kennedy and other jazz musicians improvise a score to the England vs Poland 1973 World Cup qualifying match. Also appearing over the weekend will be Zakopower, an electro-folk band, legendary jazz guitarist Jarek Smietana, and Poland’s leading breakdancing crew, the Missionaries Of Rhythm. There will also be late-night club nights, hosted by Kennedy, festival performers and Polish DJs.

Unsurprisingly, his distaste for talent shows also takes in The X Factor and their ilk.

“You don’t have to be judged by some geezer sitting behind a desk,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a big step backwards. Just when the record companies are becoming weaker, now you have the TV companies controlling what goes in the pop charts.

“At least the record companies might develop the artists before creaming off the profits. It sounds like these cats competing are getting really famous, but aren’t getting anything from it.

You don’t have to be judged by some geezer sitting behind a desk

“And the shows reflect a very bland, narrow perspective of tastes,” he continues, warming to this theme. “They’re not helping the public’s perception of music – they certainly don’t help me to find what I want.”

What Kennedy most wants from the next chapter of his musical journey is a collaboration with hip-hop maestro, Jay-Z. “He’s my favourite cat at the moment,” he says, standing up to leave and bagging a few bananas from a bowl of fruit. “I would love to do something with him. That would be killer, man!”

With Nigel Kennedy, it seems that anything is possible. Over to you, Mr Z.

Shhh! by the Nigel Kennedy Quintet is out now on EMI

Nigel Kennedy’s Polish Weekend, May 29-31, Southbank Centre

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