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Festival Da Jazz: St Moritz 2013

Bruce Lindsay By

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Another packed house greeted violinist and all-round geezer Nigel Kennedy. Kennedy has been a major star in classical music for 30 years: his recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (EMI, 1989) has sold over 2 million copies. It's the Festival Da Jazz, however, so it seemed like a decent bet that Kennedy would perform some jazz tunes—he has form, having recorded numerous jazz albums including Blue Note Sessions (Blue Note) in 2006. A decent bet, but not a safe one: after all, Kennedy has long been as famous for his idiosyncratic approach to performance as for his talent as a violinist. So the programme for the evening consisted mostly of the violinist's own compositions plus works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Bela Bartok and Fritz Kreisler. The sole jazz standard of the set was Django Reinhardt's "Swing 39," delivered with a certain aplomb but not too much swing.

Kennedy is many things, as became apparent during the evening. There was Kennedy the rocker, the serious classical musician, the stand-up comic, the crooner, the composer, the folky, the eccentrically punkish English dandy. The audience loved all of them—except one.

Kennedy's visual image has been constant for many years, with trainers, black trousers, a football jersey from his beloved Aston Villa and a spiky haircut. To begin, the outfit was topped by an elderly black satin shirt, left sleeve rolled up, right sleeve hacked off at the elbow: later, the elderly shirt was replaced by a slightly shinier, less damaged, one.

The serious classical musician was in evidence before the concert began: audience members were given a copy of the night's program as they entered the club, with each composer and composition listed in order. The serious musician was also in evidence when Kennedy played some of these compositions, particularly in the first, acoustic, set of the evening. The intense concentration and respect he brought to his solo performance of Bach's "Chaccone" resulted in a fine rendition of the piece and a rapturous reception. The folky side of Kennedy was revealed in a bright, joyful performance of Bartok's "Romanian Dances," in some of the loveliest moments from his own compositions and in his choice of "The Londonderry Air" as the second encore.

The stand-up comic and the crooner were in evidence throughout the night—stories about his band members, bad jokes, repeated more than once, and a voice that won't give Kurt Elling any sleepless nights delighted the audience. Kennedy adapted a line from Ian Dury's "Billericay Dickie" when he introduced himself (Dury's own distinctive visual image may well have been an inspiration for Kennedy's), sang short ditties about some of the women in the room and constantly bumped knuckles with bandmates and audience members alike.

The Kennedy that didn't go down so well—albeit temporarily—was the Leader Of A Suddenly Very Loud Rock Band. The warning signs were there at the start of the second set. Black drapes at the rear of the room had been removed, to reveal a bank of heavy duty amplifiers. Yaron Stavi now had a Fender Jaguar bass guitar to hand as well as his double bass, Doug Boyle had his electric six-string strapped on and Kennedy was holding an electric violin and standing behind an array of at least six effects pedals.

A minute or so into Kennedy's prog-rocker "Hills Of Saturn" it happened. A short pause then Bam! An almighty power chord rent the air. The impact was enough to make a few of the people seated in the front row fall backwards. As they recovered many others began to cover their ears and a few sets of earplugs were hurriedly put in place. It didn't take long for the audience to acclimatise however and Kennedy soon had them back on-side.

One band member kept a low profile during the high decibel rock, accordionist Marian Mexicanu. No problem, for the rest of the group mustered plenty of enthusiasm and volume and Mexicanu had already made his mark during the first set. His playing was quite beautiful—emotionally engaging as well as technically impressive, he was Kennedy's equal as an interpreter of the tunes and even outshone the leader on the quieter passages. When "Hills Of Saturn" cooled down during its mid-section and Stavi and drummer Krzyzstof Dziedzic layed down a relaxed reggae beat, Mexicanu produced one of the most graceful and emotive solos of the week.

After Midnight

Free midnight shows took place not in the Dracula Club (presumably the Count is too busy by that time of night) but in the Miles Davis Lounge of the Hotel Kulm. The basement venue, a short walk from the Dracula Club, worked well as a relaxed, late night, space. It was smart, comfortable, provided a large and raised stage—bigger than the stage area of the Club—and table service.


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