Classical Punk

Kennedy's not in his hotel room, and the only trace of him is a sassy voice mail in his impenetrably thick London East Ender's drawl: “Oy! Oy! Hey, you motherfuckers. Let's unite and get a motherfucking world. Cool! Listen, like, um, I might not be 'eah on this number. That's why you're hearing my voice. . . . Cooool. Okay. Just be cooool. La'uh. Catch you la'uh. Baaah-ee. OY!!!”

If you didn't already know, you'd never guess this hooligan is one of the world's preeminent concert violinists. A fearless player, Kennedy rips into violin concertos with an intensity and singular musicianship that's as much informed by his love of Miles and Monk as by his classical horse sense. He's an odd bird in the buttoned-down classical world, well-known for his punky duds and trademark pineapple-hair tuft. Even after two decades on the circuit, some ignorant folks think his “bad boy” act is a put-on, and he still gets condescension from critics who rank the word “crossover” a couple of notches below national treason.

Kennedy, 41, doesn't draw boundaries so easily, and the program for his Sunday concert at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts-solo sonatas by J.S. Bach and Bla Bartk, plus Kennedy's Concerto in Suite Form after songs by Jimi Hendrix-is a mnage trois with a logic uniquely his own.

“I consider Bartk and Hendrix to be two very similar composers,” Kennedy says. “Not in the mood or the feel or the sound of their music, but in how it all came together. Bartk was surrounded by Hungarian and Romanian border folk music, and he took these elements and put them into amazing, challenging new structures that threw a whole new light on the material he was using.

“In the same way, one can say that Jimi was surrounded by blues and rock and R&B and even jazz,” he continues. “And while hearin' those influences in his playing, it's immediately evident that he's not an R&B player; he's not a rock player; he's not a blues player. But he's instinctively taken these elements and made a whole new world and musical structure out of those. So I see there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between these guys.”

For Kennedy, though, it isn't enough to play them side by side. Instead-and this is what makes the purist critics howl-he weaves them together. “We all just have got loads of opportunities to go hear some guy struggle through the Bartk Solo Sonata without stoppin',” he says. “It's more interesting to skip from a bit of Bartk to Hendrix, back to Bartk, to Hendrix again, and maybe try and shed a bit of new light on it by putting it in a new context.”

As for how he came to include Bach in this company, once again, it's best to let Kennedy do the talking. “Without harmony, jazz wouldn't exist -and harmony is a totally European concept,” he says. “Therefore, jazz has always been a great fucking blend of European values and African values. Bach is the master of melodic and harmonic development without which none of this other music of the century probably would have happened. That's why Bach's on this show.”

A protg of Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Kennedy burst onto the scene at 19 when he played the Elgar Violin Concerto under his mentor at Royal Albert Hall. The symbolism of the event (it was 44 years earlier that the 16-year-old Menuhin played it under Sir Edward Elgar's baton on the same stage) didn't escape the hawk-eyed commentators. Back then, he was Nigel Kennedy-or just “The Nige”-but now he prefers the singular Kennedy, making him the frequent butt of “artist formerly known as” jokes.

In 1992, Kennedy decided he'd had it with concert life and went into a self-imposed layoff that ended only last year. During the five years he was out of sight, he set himself free. He's talked openly about the booze and drugs, but he says they never got out-of-control and that he still practiced the violin three hours per day. “I learned some other instruments a bit: bass guitar, guitar, keyboard, cello. Just to get that fresh feeling of startin' from scratch, which in the case of the cello was a literal description of the sound.”

It was also a chance to do some serious writing on his Hendrix concerto, which is still a work in progress. He plans on recording it this winter, and he wants to integrate it with elements of trip-hop-what he calls the Programming Movement-emerging out of the Bristol, England, rock scene with groups like Massive Attack, Portishead and Roni Size.

“This trip-hop thing has got the energy of hip-hop, but it's taking you out there on some mental excursion,” Kennedy explains. When I admit my ignorance, he's reassuring. “If you've managed to protect yourself from that shit, you must be all right!” He says with a laugh. It takes music “away from the rather egocentric kind of domination by the singer into a whole imaginative world of orchestration, even though it's on computers and stuff.”

When he first started doing Hendrix songs seven or eight years ago, Kennedy used electric violin over a drum-and-bass combo, but he soon grew disenchanted. He wasn't out to make a Strad sound like a Strat, but to do something original with the Hendrix material-to expand it in classical style while improvising in jazz style. “What's the point,” he says, “in having some motherfucker, like, playin' rather similar to Jimi over drums and bass, which is exactly what Jimi did himself? No one needs that. They've got the albums.”

If Kennedy has a fixation on Hendrix, it's also evident in his cavalier style and dangerous living. Last year, on his way to a San Francisco Symphony solo gig, he cracked up his red convertible rental car, and figuring a little impromptu blues was in order, he followed up that evening's Beethoven Concerto with an encore of Miles Davis' Bags' Groove. His own Jag-“a Mad Max car” spray-painted in the colors of his beloved Aston Villa soccer team-is riddled with dents.

In fact, talking to Kennedy, you sense an overpoweringly fatalistic quality about him and his music making. “I don't take anything as guaranteed,” he says. “You know, each performance I do might be the last, and if you've got that attitude about it, then you really put your heart and soul into it.”

Kennedy performs at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (800) 300-4345. Sun., 7 p.m. $35-$50.

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