Punk violinist Nigel Kennedy brings Jimi Hendrix project to Germany | Music | DW | 15.05.2015
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Punk violinist Nigel Kennedy brings Jimi Hendrix project to Germany

From J.S. Bach to Kate Bush, the virtuoso with the spikey hair has completely redefined crossover. Love him or hate him, here's a look at the outspoken violinist Nigel Kennedy who's left his mark on music as we know it.

Nigel Kennedy and Jimi Hendrix have a special connection, even though the legendary rock star died in 1970.

Crossover violinist Kennedy has been reinterpreting his works for the past quarter-century, taking his Hendrix set on tour for the first time in 1993. On Saturday, May 16, he's bringing his new Hendrix project to the Jazzfest in the western German city of Bonn. Kennedy - who is just as famous for playing Bach and Co. - gives the rock classics a completely new twist, performing them with the technical brilliance he's known for.

Nigel Kennedy, who identified himself only as "Kennedy" for a time, was born into a musical family in Brighton, southern England, on December 28, 1956. His mother was a piano teacher and his father played the cello in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London; his maternal grandfather was first-chair cellist at the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The talented rebel

At the age of six, the young Nigel received his first violin lesson. His extraordinary talent quickly drew attention.

In 1964 he received a scholarship to the Yehudi Menuhin School for musically gifted children, where he was the youngest student. Famed violinist Menuhin became not only his teacher, but also his biggest supporter. At 16, Kennedy transferred to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where he spent three years without completing a degree.

His rebellious spirit was often at odds with the stiff conventions of the classical music world. He preferred to perform as a street musician and play crossover in small jazz clubs. He learned the art of eccentric performance with Kate Bush and pop music from greats like Paul McCartney and Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel.

Stephane Grappelli (left) performs with Yehudi Menuhin in 1988, Copyright: picture-alliance/Photoshot

Kennedy's musical influencers: Stephane Grappelli (left) performs with Yehudi Menuhin in 1988

In 1974, Kennedy performed for the first time with jazz legend Stephane Grappelli at the Edinburgh Festival. Just two years later, he was celebrated in New York's Carnegie Hall as a promising, virtuosic newcomer.

Leap into the pop charts

Despite his success in the mainstream music scene, Kennedy made a return to his classical roots. Playing on his Guarneri violin, he left a mark in London with his 1977 popstar-like performance of a Mendelssohn-Bartholdy violin concerto. He toured with the world's great orchestras, and made a 1980 appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic.

British record EMI snatched him up with an exclusive recording contract, ensuring that his artistic career would not only be colorful, but also lucrative.

Nigel Kennedy rehearsing with the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz around the year 2000, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Yui Mok

He always had a daring sense of fashion

Besides his impeccable technical skill, Kennedy's conspicuous punk style made him unforgettable to audiences with diverse musical taste. In 1989, his pop version of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" - a set of Baroque concertos for violin and orchestra - even made it onto the pop music charts in Great Britain. The recording sold over three million copies, making it the most-sold classical album of all time.

In 1992, Kennedy took the old adage, "It's best to stop while you're ahead," to heart and announced a radical end to his classical career. An artist has to change to avoid extinction, he said at the time.

Crossover at its best

In the 90s, Kennedy's concerts increasingly became unorthodox jazz performances. He skipped between Miles Davis, J.S. Bach, Jimi Hendrix and Bela Bartok. With his own compositions, he had only limited success, however.

After a four-year hiatus, he returned to the stage in 1996 and was celebrated in the world's major concert halls, drawing young audiences with his eccentric style and charismatic manner.

Always very politically vocal, Kennedy has used his fame to convey political messages. At the end of the war in Kosovo, he performed a peace concert in Belgrade, for example. And in September 2002, he performed together with Jewish-Russian musician Maxim Vengerov at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Nigel Kennedy at a performance in 1990, Copyright: picture-alliance/Horst Galuschka

Kennedy, pictured here in 1990, became the classical popstar

His unique role and liaison between musical genres brought him recognition, and Germany's weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" said he's finally "matured as a punk."

Kennedy has performed regularly in Germany. In February this year, he played an evening of Bach - pure Bach, but with the unique Kennedy sound - in Berlin with the Russian Chamber Philharmonic St. Petersburg.

And on Saturday, May 16, he is performing at the Jazzfest in Bonn together with two guitars, bass and drums. The small ensemble features Kennedy with music that has been close to his heart for many decades, but which he's freshly compiled: His new Jimi Hendrix project.

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