Nigel Kennedy on Tour with Bach & Fats Waller

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bach and Fats Waller: Nigel Kennedy (violin), Rolf Bussalb (guitar), Yaron Stavi (bass), Krzysztof Dziedzic (drum) Tonhalle, Zurich 6.4.2013 (JR).

Bach: Praeludium
Bach: from Sonata No. 2: Fugue, Andante and Allegro
Fats Waller: “How can you face me now?”
Stan Desmond: “Take Five”
Fats Waller: “Sweet and Slow”
Fats Waller: “I’m crazy about you baby”
Fats Waller: “Viper’s Drag”

Nigel Kennedy
Photo Courtesy Nigel Kennedy

“Liberace of the Nineties” was how John Drummond, Controller of BBC Classical Music and the Proms in the late Eighties and early Nineties, described the “enfant terrible” Nigel Kennedy two decades ago. Middle age (he is 56) has mellowed him a smidgen, his Mockney accent may not yet have reverted to Home Counties Recognised Pronunciation, but at least it no longer grates.

The stage at the classical Tonhalle was set with a Perspex cage set up at the front to capture the sound of the four instrumentalists, at either side a large recent painting by Dora Holzhandler of Nigel playing his violin in the naïve Polish-Jewish style of early Chagall. The Tonhalle’s grand organ was illuminated in garish blue and pink, evoking the Albert Hall. It was all skilfully amplified by some impressive-looking equipment.

Nigel stormed on stage, with his now trade mark punching the air (which irritatingly he did continually throughout the performance, whenever there is a pause). He had a friendly opening patter (in English, after “Guten Abend, meine Damen und Herren”) explaining that due to the current state of the British economy he has no orchestra and even his drummer only has one drum. He won’t make a stand-up comic. Dressed in a black velvet jacket, or – from my seat – it could have been a black bin liner, straggly waistcoat, trainers replacing bovver boots, retaining his punk hair style, he now cuts somewhat of a sad figure, with more than a sign of middle-aged spread.

His tour starts in Switzerland (Zurich and Berne), goes all round Germany and ends, next month, in the UK. The hall was sold out, with not a dark suit or tie in sight. The concert tour is dedicated to his mentors, Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grapelli, with a nod to recently departed Dave Brubeck, and features music which he grew up with, though he openly admits that ”growing up is something I haven’t been overly interested in so far…”.

The first part of the concert was dedicated to Bach, whom he clearly reveres. He glides effortlessly from tuning up, through a few bars of jazz, Piazzolla, an Irish jig and Klezmer into straight-laced Bach. It is obviously unorthodox, but it’s quite an endearing act. The audience was spellbound and lapped it up. The violin is, using his words, his friend; not surprising, given it is a 1735 Guarneri del Gesu from Cremona. He impresses with his sure-footed intonation, speed and effortlessness of fingering and double-stopping; what a pity he has to stomp around the stage, which suits the jazz but not the Bach. But as he said once, “just because we are playing dead composers, we don’t have to play like undertakers”.

Between movements we are treated to some tango, Yo Yo Ma style, and part of the Sailor’s Hornpipe, before the Bach returns, in crisp Glenn Gould articulation, often reminiscent of Jacques Louisser.

The second half featured tunes by Fats Waller, an artist he singled out when still a child prodigy. Kennedy embellished all the songs with breathtaking harmonics while his backing strummers accompanied and watched him adoringly.

His encores included more Bach, with high voltage pyrotechnics on the fiddle, “Danny Boy” (the Londonderry Air), and gypsy mixtures of Hungarian and Slavonic Dances in the style of Klezmer, which brought the house down.

After the concert, he eventually descended with a Tarzan-like clamour to the Foyer of the hall, swigging Veuve Cliquot from a bottle, to sign his Tour CD for a queue of his adoring fans. “Oy! Practice!” he wrote on one for a teenage violinist and scribbled an undecipherable signature. Thankfully, despite the act, Nigel audibly still does audibly practise. Catch him in Germany or in the UK if you can still get hold of seats. Details of his tour can be found on his website LINK to

John Rhodes