fri 12/07/2024

Nigel Kennedy's Polish Adventure | reviews, news & interviews

Nigel Kennedy's Polish Adventure

Nigel Kennedy's Polish Adventure

Tracking down Nigel Kennedy for BBC One's Imagine

Nigel Kennedy: 'unique among classical musicians. Or any other musicians, actually'© Jillian Edelstein

Brilliant though it was to be shooting an Imagine film for BBC One, we did experience the occasional tremor of foreboding about making a programme with Nigel Kennedy. We (that's me and director Frank Hanly) had a bit of previous with Nigel - I'd done several print interviews with him, and we'd shot a couple of short films with him for EMI.

The last one was at Rockfield studios in Monmouth for his recent jazz album, Shhh! We'd bowled up out of the pouring rain on a black November night to be greeted like long-lost family members, as Nige plied us with wine and insisted that we join him, his wife Agnieszka  and various studio collaborators for one of Rockfield's colossal home-cooked dinners. Great, we thought, this is going to be easy. Then the following day Nige abruptly decided that he wanted to spend the day with his son Sark instead of being interviewed by us, so we spent a monsoon-like Sunday skulking around coffee shops in Gloucester. With seigneurial sang froid, Kennedy had decreed that we couldn't even shoot a few exterior shots of Rockfield to keep ourselves amused. We finally did our interview at 11pm. How we laughed when we looked back on it.

smiling_kennedy_smallThe lesson we kept learning while working with Kennedy is that you won't get what you expected, but you will get something else. This was something that the Southbank Centre's head of music, Marshall Marcus, also experienced while assembling Kennedy's recent three-day festival of Polish music. The project was plagued by Kennedy's abrupt changes of repertoire and timetable - not helpful when the brochures had already been printed - but somehow the show went on.

"It’s been a real rollercoaster, putting this together," said Marcus, teeth only slightly gritted. "There have been lots of things where we’ve said 'Okay, that will work, but why don’t we try it like this?' Nigel’s got very strong views and he has a very strong view about authority, so, you know, he had to have the ability to actually shape this thing. There have been lots of changes, but hey, that’s what our work is about."

For our main chunk of filming for Imagine, we travelled to Poland, Kennedy's adopted homeland, just before Easter. As well as filming Kennedy at home and in the subterranean Muniaka jazz club a few blocks down the street from his Krakow apartment, we headed up into the mountains to a small village called Jaworki where Kennedy would be playing a gig with his jazz quintet. A local enthusiast has built a kind of rustic shed in the ethnic gorale style in the middle of nowhere - almost in Slovakia, in fact - where prestigious jazz musicians perform regularly. The punters flock in from miles around, and it's quite usual to find Germans and Americans in the audience.

The stakes had been raised somewhat by the arrival of Alan Yentob, Imagine's presenter and executive producer, not to mention Creative Director of the BBC. He'd never met Kennedy before. We recorded their first meeting on film, as Kennedy and Yentob (pictured below) exchanged banter outside the Jaworki jazz club, and Nigel's Weimaraner dog, Huxley, tried to take the Creative Director's arm off.Nigel_Alan_cropOur trip to Jaworki was a microcosm of the whole filming experience. Before the show that night, Kennedy sat upstairs in the band's dressing room, noisily holding court while sampling an interesting selection of local vodkas, each of them powerful enough to stop a charging rhino at 40 paces. Kennedy and the band went down and played their first two-hour set, came back and drank some more vodka, then played their second set. Then they drank more vodka. Kennedy tried to inveigle the Creative Director into an endless night of celebration, but we managed to prise him out and drive back to our hotel. Among those we left behind was theartsdesk's own Peter Culshaw, who had turned up during the evening hoping to get a newspaper interview out of Kennedy.

The following day dawned in a dazzle of mountain sunshine and blue skies. This was perfect, since our plan for the day was to go strolling through the scenery while messrs Kennedy and Yentob conducted a conversation on the hoof. It had even been Kennedy's own idea. We were optimistic that we might be able to get the show on the road by what is euphemistically known as "late morning", but midday came and went with no sign of the wayward violinist. Soon it was lunchtime, and before very long 3pm. The sun had vanished as murky grey clouds obscured the perfect blue sky. Tempers were shortening.

It wasn't until 5.30 that we encountered Kennedy again. As the evening gloom thickened, he came strolling down the road outside the jazz club wearing a geezer-ish grin, and blithely announced that he'd spent the last hour or two walking his dogs up in the hills. Without us.

No worries - he had a new plan! We followed as he drove up some twisty local roads, then continued on foot up a bucolic mountain track. Just as we'd got Kennedy and Yentob wired for sound and started to film, the clouds suddenly parted and the sun broke through in a burst of sublime evening light. You couldn't make it up. And, as they strode along through the Polish meadows, Kennedy magically became the epitome of charm, wit and eloquence, apart from a few favourite expletives, and AY found himself conducting a far more revealing, and much funnier, interview than we'd anticipated.

There’s a popular theory about Nigel Kennedy that his whole career has been some kind of fabrication, in which he has traded in a poshly spoken background and an elite training in classical music for an itinerant oafishness. In this version, he's too lazy to play much classical music any more, and would rather retreat into Seventies-style jazz-rock with his Nigel Kennedy Quintet (Kennedy with vibes player Orphy Robinson, pictured below)

nige_orphy_smallWhen Kennedy returned to the Proms to play the Elgar violin concerto two years ago, Paul Morley advanced this line of attack during the pre-show chat. It was a shame, Morley thought, that Kennedy has to disguise his intelligence and “has to become this caricature of something to get attention.” Certainly Kennedy's onstage demeanour - peppering his remarks with "fucks" and "motherfuckers", telling rambling stories with incomprehensible punchlines, swapping in-jokes with his musicians and calling everybody "man" - is unique among classical musicians. Or any other musicians, actually. But if you spend enough time with him, it eventually dawns on you that this is what he is, and you're free to take it or leave it. Part of what attracts him to life in Poland is that people are more apt to accept all the things that make up his personality, rather than expecting him to play Vivaldi's Four Seasons all the time. It's also a country with a unique devotion to jazz, which became a form of resistance music during the Communist era, and this chimes perfectly with Kennedy's noncomformist streak.

He has a particularly idiosyncratic sense of time. Although drilled in the rarefied academic air of the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey and Juilliard in New York, Kennedy has never quite got the hang of starting the performance at the hour specified in the programme. It's as if part of the fiddler's brain was frozen around the time of the original Woodstock festival, when bands would wander onstage 14 hours late and the crowd was too stoned to care. Maybe that's where his Jimi Hendrix fixation comes from, too.

When Kennedy hosted his South Bank Polish festival, the timetable had been ripped to shreds by the end of the opening Saturday, as he jammed and caroused into the small hours. He eventually re-emerged at 2.30pm the following day, squinting into the daylight with tiny pink eyes as he climbed out of a car at the artists' entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. His long-suffering pianist, Piotr Wylezol, was exhibiting uncharacteristic signs of tension, because he'd held up his own gig waiting for Kennedy to arrive and deliver an introduction to the audience. "They won't be pissed off with me, they'll be pissed off with you," Kennedy chortled to the ashen-faced keyboard player. "Who says it's easy to play with Kennedy?" as Wylezol puts it in the film. Yet just an hour later, the severely hungover Kennedy delivered a performance of searing brilliance with the klezmer band, Kroke.Nige_and_Jopek_smallDespite his various foibles, you get the impression his musicians would follow Kennedy to hell and back. We'd caught up with him again at a jazz festival in the Polish mountain resort of Zakopane, where he was bashing the material for the South Bank into shape. There were problems with his so-called Chopin Supergroup, a brass and string ensemble, as they worked up a series of improvisations based around some of Chopin's best-known themes. Indeed, the rehearsals temporarily ground to a halt while jazz singer Anna Maria Jopek (pictured above with Kennedy) fumed and fussed about some problem with the arrangement and the way veteran classical pianist Janusz Olejniczak was playing it. Far from reacting with anger or impatience, Kennedy calmly applied diplomatic balm, soothing the distraught Jopek and gently coaxing the band towards a solution.

A few weeks earlier, we'd been in Hamburg to film Kennedy with his new Orchestra of Life, playing a mixture of JS Bach and Duke Ellington. They were only three days into their debut tour, and a few rough edges were crying out for sandpaper, but already Kennedy had managed to instill a powerful esprit de corps in his young musicians.

"I think with Nigel, it’s impossible to have an average concert, because he isn’t an average person, he’s an extraordinary person and that’s what you feed off," said orchestra leader Lizzie Ball. "Everybody in the orchestra adores him and he treats us so well. It’s very special that somebody of his level would care to such an extent."

And was she learning anything from working with Nigel?

"If you believe in anything, then it’s possible," said Ball."If you put in the work and you have the belief, I think he’s the absolute example of that - that it’s possible to do anything that you really want to do."

The lesson we kept learning while working with Kennedy is that you won't get what you expected, but you will get something else

Share this article


Thank you for this. You've caught the essence of Nigel as a musician and as a person. I can't count the number of hours I've spent waiting for him to turn up and play, but when he does I forget all about them and wonder what else I could have done that would have been so worthwhile.

Hi Elsie. Thanks for the message. I was looking at your website []. I hope NK appreciates all your hard work.

Saw most of the concerts at the Polish Weekend - stunning musicians and such talent. Thought the Orchestra of Life were fabulous - such freshness and enthusiasm. Lizzie Ball their Leader is not only stunning to look at but super talented and very intuitive at following Nigel's unpredictable movements. She is a great violinist.

Was amusing to run into Adam in a sheep barn in the middle of nowhere on the Slovenian border. I was writing up Kennedy for the Telegraph. Didn't get an interview there but I managed one in Berlin at 2 a.m. so can only imagine the difficulties. Adam's excellent programme is a sympathetic portrait and is on iPlayer. Highly recommended.

Adam, The track played by Kroke on the excellent Nigel Kennedy Imagine programme is one I am haunted by - cant find it on i-tunes so do you know the name of this track. Cheers, Dave

Hi Dave. I think the track you mean is called Jovano Jovanke. It's on the East Meets East album which Kennedy made with Kroke.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters