Every generation produces one; a special musician who has that little bit extra that separates him or her from their contemporaries. Perhaps they are no more musically talented than others of their time, but something about them gives them a relationship to their music that no one else can match.
In the 1950's a young Canadian pianist took the world by a storm with his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Glen Gould became known for not only his musical abilities but also his opinions and eccentricities. He chose to sit at a piano stool that was so low his eyes were almost level to the keys, he hummed along to the music he was playing out of key and off tune, and gave up live performances in search of perfection.
Born around the time that Glen Gould was making his first recordings, Nigel Kennedy quickly became a child prodigy on his instrument of choice, the violin. When he attended the famous Menhuin School Of Music run by Yehudi Mehuin and his pianist sister he was the first student honoured with a Menhuin scholarship.
Kennedy quickly shot to fame when one of his first recordings, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, became the all time best selling Classical recording with over 2 million copies sold. He became the enfant terrible of the Classical music world with his punk haircuts and dyed hair. Nearly everybody associated with the business had their "Nigel Kennedy story" (Supposedly there is a small potted tree in Toronto Ontario's Roy Thompson Hall that is now known as the "pot that Nigel peed in")
Thankfully, he never let celebrity get in the way of his musical development and continues to this day to be one of the most captivating and intriguing musicians alive. Like all the best, he constantly seeks to find new challenges and ways of expressing himself. What few know is that early on in his life Nigel was torn between his two musical loves, Classical and Jazz. Convinced by teachers that he would never be taken seriously in the Classical world if he continued to do things like appear at Carnegie Hall with Stephane Grappelli, the world famous Jazz violinist, he made the decision to devote himself to Classical music.
But in the past few years he has come back to his other love and has formed his own Jazz combo. So his new recording on the Blue Note Label, Nigel Kennedy Blue Note Sessions is not the idle fancy of some diva wishing to show off, rather the continuing fulfillment of a long held dream.
People often make comments about proof and results, and in the case of Nigel Kennedy, results have always spoken much louder than anybody's words ever could. The most conclusive proof for me of this being the work of a person who took his Jazz seriously was I had to strain to hear his violin in the mix on the first couple of tracks. Normally when somebody is showing off, they tend to ensure they stand out like sore thumbs no matter what sort of detrimental effect it would have on the music.
In all honesty though I wish he were a little bit more of an egotist as his violin is incredible in any and all capacities that it's used in this recording. It doesn't take him long to prove he belongs in the studio playing, recording, and writing Jazz. For not only has he arranged the saxophone and violin melodies on ten of the eleven tracks on the CD but he has also written two of the compositions himself.
The music on the disc is a mixture of influences but owes more to the last twenty or thirty years of Jazz than any other era. The fact that he is joined by Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums who worked with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, and many other post World War Two masters and innovators would have exerted a strong influence over his approach to the music and the pieces chosen for this recording.
The balance of the band includes Joe Lovano and JD Allen on saxophone, Kenny Werner piano, Daniel Sadownick percussion and Lucky Peterson on the Hammond B-3 organ. Like Nigel, they are from a younger generation of musicians who bring an exuberance to the music that is nicely focused by the two veterans. Of course having an experienced rhythm section also gives the "players" the knowledge that they can cut loose at any time and feel comfortable in the knowledge they will always be able to find their way back home.
There is something inherently seductive about the sound of the violin weaving in and out of the saxophone that has to be heard to be believed. While the violin is by its nature a lead instrument, Kennedy's unique abilities come to the fore equally when he is playing as part of the combo. By choosing to play in keys that are complimentary to the alto saxophone, he utilizes the lower register of his instrument to create a richer, fuller sound.
Even during his solos, he pulls back from the higher registers to maintain a consistency of sound and feeling. It's another example of his awareness of the importance the whole ensemble plays in the performance of a piece. On one of the occasions he does cut loose, he utilizes the electric violin's ability to make use of the same tools as an electric guitar player; foot pedals for fuzz and distortion.
I realize I'm talking in generalities and somewhat vaguely when describing the performances on this disc, but that's because I feel I lack the vocabulary to describe what transpires. Mere words on a page feel far too bloodless to do anything but offer inadequate descriptions of sound and emotions that can't be communicated by reading. How many different ways can you say that someone is brilliant before it becomes meaningless, yet what other words are there to describe what happens on Blue Note Sessions?
Inspired, perhaps, or maybe even genius, but in the end their ability to communicate are limited to a common understanding of those words. When music touches the heart and soul in the manner of these compositions, what hope does mere intellect have in conveying their impact? Does it help if I tell you that there were times when the music was so captivating that a sense of stillness descended on me that was so absolute that it felt like time had stopped?
How about if I said that on occasion while listening I stopped breathing because I was so caught up in a moment that it felt unnecessary? I don't even have anything to offer up as a comparison, because I don't think I've ever heard anything quite like this before in its capacity for expression and ability to amaze. Is it sufficient to say that Nigel Kennedy's Blue Note Sessions are without a doubt some of the best Jazz I've ever heard in my life?
I hope so, because what else is there to say aside from that?
(Originally posted August 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.