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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Music Review

Punk Panache Aside, Kennedy's Immense Innate Talent Shines

November 23, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

He's dropped his first name, Nigel. And for five years, he pretty much dropped out of sight, hoping to trade classical music for pop, and also hoping, apparently, to trade on his celebrity.

But now he is back. Last year, Kennedy returned to performing in concert and began releasing recordings again. Saturday night he finally made it to Los Angeles, with an appearance at UCLA's Royce Hall in which he alternately played unaccompanied and with an ensemble he has formed called the Kennedy Collective.

Five years off seem to have changed Kennedy little, except maybe having recharged his batteries. He dresses the same, a kind of mismatched, not particularly fanciful thrift-store punk. He still tries too hard to be liked. At one point he leaped offstage, wandering among the audience to see whether he could magically tell who of us had washed our hair (something he revealed he personally dislikes doing).

And he is still, through it all, a magnificent violinist.

What Kennedy is not is as hip, rebellious or even adventurous as he would like us to believe. He is more good boy than bad, more traditionalist than radical. He is, in fact, a showman virtuoso of the 19th-century mold, a master of his instrument and an innately great musician. He can even be a little bit corny.

On the surface Kennedy does bank on unconventionality. For the first half, he interrupted the four movements of Bartok's Sonata for solo violin halfway with arrangements of two Jimi Hendrix songs he played with his seven-member ensemble of cellos, guitars, winds and bass (all acoustic instruments, but lightly amplified). He followed the Bartok with two more Hendrix numbers. After intermission it was solo Bach and yet more Hendrix.

But this is little more than a return to the concert life of earlier centuries, when movements between serious symphonies and concertos were broken up with lighter music all the time. Nor is bringing rock into the world of the classics exactly groundbreaking. It now seems like ancient history when the Kronos Quartet would follow the otherworldly ending of Berg's "Lyric" Suite with Hendrix's "Purple Haze."

Kennedy is actually more cautious than most. He takes pains to make connections. When his collective launched into the first Hendrix selection, "Third Stone From the Sun," following the Fuga movement of Bartok's sonata, the bass player picked up the two-note motive that launches Bartok's fugue. Kennedy, too, in his Hendrix playing, was full of all the virtuoso tricks he had learned from Bach and Bartok and especially Fritz Kreisler. I'm not sure that this is a terribly big step from Heifetz's Gershwin.

*

What Kennedy does bring to all this is an intensity and sheer power that can overwhelm. He may play the Bartok sonata with more exclamation points than he did when he recorded in his pre-punk days, and not everyone is going to approve of his foot stomping, but he also brings to it a tremendous concentration, depth and seriousness. No rocker was he when he broke off the fugue to shush the audience.

Kennedy's tone is amazingly rapt and tremendous in size. Royce has a dry acoustic, yet Kennedy filled every corner with such thick, liquid sound you could practically drown in it. So big is the sound that when he added amplification in the Hendrix, it was not jarring.

The Bach, the Adagio and Fugue from the Third Suite for unaccompanied violin were finer still, a stunning, unforgettable performance in which every note spoke with arresting power--but also an old-fashioned, Romantic performance, Kennedy playing with eyes closed and trance-like concentration, ever going for the big effect.

No rocker he, really, in the Hendrix either. The eight songs he played with his superbly confident band showed him an agreeable arranger, an affable leader, a flamboyant improviser and a good listener, who seemed to take and give pleasure in equal measure. These songs did go on, though, and when they are eventually shaped into Kennedy's "Hendrix Concerto," it will be an epic potboiler; the concert was not over until 11:30 p.m.

Two encores were more sophisticated. One was "Cool Blues" by Miles Davis, for which he was joined by guitarist Andy Summers, formerly of the Police. The other was "Melody in the Wind," which Kennedy wrote as a duet for himself and Stephane Grappelli, and recorded on his rather good but not very commercial pop album, "Kafka." Here, his partner was Eunice Lee, and they made something sexy of it, wandering off stage playing together, never to be seen again.

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