Nigel Kennedy pays tribute to the king of electric guitar with his Jimi Hendrix Project

Lime green sneakers, a messy, greying punk haircut, baggy black pants: Nigel Kennedy stomps around the stage shredding through the solos of “Purple Haze” on his electric violin. Jimi Hendrix doubtlessly would have approved. Hearing the king “made me want to play the violin like a guitar,” says Kennedy.

Not always the first reaction of a classically trained musician. Kennedy started out as a 6-year-old Wunderkind at the Yehudi Menuhin School in London, under the tutelage of the revered master himself. He went on the normal classical virtuoso spree, as a soloist playing the usual big concertos, with major orchestras and eminent conductors.

But at 13 he met legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, performing with him at Carnegie Hall when 16 and a student at Julliard. And he had a stint of playing on the street. “It taught me a real lesson, busking did,” Kennedy said in an interview with The Guardian in 2013. “That if people like the music you play, they’ll listen to it – and they don’t give a shit whether it’s called classical, jazz or anything. They will listen if they like it, but walk past if they don’t.”

Stuffy no more
Kennedy’s big breakthrough came in 1989, when he cut Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra. The Guinness Book of Records has listed it as the best-selling classical album of all time.

(photo: Lucas Beck / EMI Classics)
(photo: Lucas Beck / EMI Classics)

He then developed into a self-styled “cockney lad in bovver boots,” as he has been described. Or derided, with his punk get-up and contrived working-class accent called “mockney.” Nonetheless, his “in-your-face” interpretations, engaging personality, all-embracing talent and limitless crossover interests, continue to make him one of the most riveting music personalities today.

Film director Ken Russell, himself quite a flamboyant character, praised Kennedy in 1990: “I appreciate the way you are changing the stuffy image of classical music we’ve all had to endure for so long. You’ve shown us you don’t have to dress like an undertaker to play it.” And added: “You’ve also proved that good music is good music whether it’s classical or pop.”

Today, more than a quarter of a century later, Kennedy continues to annoy, baffle and mesmerize. The 12 tracks of Vivaldi’s greatest hits appeared again last October: the New Four Seasons album. A wild blend of the real Vivaldi notes, bass and drums, noise and electric scratching, it is energetic and vehement.

But Kennedy does not content himself with the Four Seasons trademark: he is constantly out for something new. He’s recorded klezmer, J.S. Bach, the Doors, jazz, a brilliant Elgar concerto, electric Celtic folk.

And Jimi Hendrix. Kennedy sees him akin to Franz Liszt or Frédéric Chopin: “a great composer and player of his instrument who made music in a totally new genre.” For a tour in 1997, Kennedy concocted seven movements for a Concerto in Suite Form out of Hendrix’ music, recording it in 1999. He launched his new Hendrix Project last year.

He is currently on a double tour through Europe, with concerts of the “New” Vivaldi interspersed with Hendrix Project gigs, like the one at Porgy & Bess on April 24.

His Vienna band includes Doug Boyle (guitar), Orphy Robinson (vibraphonist and a founding member of the Jazz Warriors), Tomasz Kupiec (bass) and Adam Czerwinski (drums). As well as 22-year-old Austrian guitarist Julian Buschberger from Linz, another Wunderkind Kennedy met at a club while on tour last year.

When he is playing like fire, Nigel Kennedy can be raucous and flagrantly rambunctious. But in his irreverence, there is a deeper reverence for the legacy of past genius. Regardless of whether the name is Vivaldi or Hendrix.

Nigel Kennedy: Jimi Hendrix Project
Apr 24, 20:30, Porgy & Bess
1., Riemergasse 11

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Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.