The irrepressible violinist pays tribute to musicians who inspired him and explores Chekhov’s Three Sisters in his latest album.
I was 58 when I started thinking, “maybe it’s time I said thank you in a metaphorical, musical way to some of the people that I’ve been lucky enough to get inspiration from.” As musicians, we’re always sharing good vibes – and hopefully good music – with our colleagues and audiences. But we’re all here because we’ve been inspired in earlier years by somebody else. So I wrote the melodies on my new album with five really important people in mind who opened new doors of perception for me.
Yehudi Menuhin was very open-minded. He maybe wasn’t the most technically superior violinist in the world, but he could play two notes and they would have more pathos than a thousand by some other cat. There are quite a lot of teachers who prescribe exactly what they do themselves, but Yehudi wasn’t anything like that. He was very, very encouraging of us all to be the individuals that we were. He wasn’t trying to force a way of life or way of playing on anybody.
The most important thing Stéphane Grappelli taught me was being different to Yehudi. Yehudi and Stéphane were two completely different musicians. Stéphane would have a good cognac before he went on stage and maybe a bit of some herbal remedy – but not tobacco – while Yehudi would be having muesli and some herbal tea.
Stéphane never played a bad note – the music just flowed out of his violin. When he was 80 he was really frail but when he put the fiddle underneath his chin he’d look 30 years younger. It was just great to be on the same stage as him.
Jarek Smietana was my best friend in Krakow. He understood my writing immediately when we played it, and somehow I had an affinity with his writing. He was a wonderful guitar player and one of the best band leaders I’ve ever played with because he had no fear, no insecurities, no power complexes. He also supported the same football team as myself, so that helped.
Menuhin would eat his muesli but Isaac Stern liked a good wrestle with his mates. I went and played to him a few times in New York and he was very generous with his time. He let me try out his Guarneri violin. He was probably the most useful advisor I had on my own playing. For Stern it’s about the simplicity and honesty of the melody. It’s just about tracing it back.
What I love about Mark O’Connor’s music and manner: he’s such a humble person but he’s also got the bravery – or the bollocks – to get away from simply bluegrass and country and get into his own extended forms of music. He can play as fast as anybody, but he never plays a bum note.
I started writing my songs before I realised who’d inspired them. I began by playing something on the piano and if I couldn’t remember it the next morning it meant it was shit. I’ve never consciously tried to imitate a style.
The melody for Stéphane, he played with me toward the end of his life. I saw how ill he was. I said, “Look man, you don’t need to come and do this.” But he said, “No, my boy. I said I would do it. I will do it.” If you listen to the violin track on its own he’s coughing all the way through But he’s still playing as beautifully as a bird. For that one I did think of Stéphane and his melodic style before I wrote it, because I was writing something for him to play. It’s that time in my life when I don’t have to be pushing myself so much. It’s nice to pay some homage to these wonderful musicians. They’ve opened the doors to possibility in the minds of a lot of my generation.
Playing the largely improvised music we created for a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, we were doing performances numerous nights, so it was a unique opportunity to get into a great bit of writing as well s into the psyche of it all. I wasn’t interested in what had happened to some bourgeouis family in the past – it’s not my type of thing – but Chekhov’s study of psychology and the human condition is a universal thing. At the same time it’s not at all contrived intellectually – it’s very natural.
That’s what I got from playing and just from hanging around actors in general. If anybody thinks musicians are psychotic, take a look at actors shouting at a wall and pulling faces at a mirror before they go on…
Nigel Kennedy’s new album My World is out now on Neue Meister