Douglas J Noble and Nigel Kennedy, London, 10 January 1995.
Violinist Nigel Kennedy contributed 'Fire' to the 'Stone Free' Jimi Hendrix tribute album (Reprise, 1993) and has also played several Jimi Hendrix songs in live performances. At the time of this interview Nigel was planning an album consisting of Hendrix covers and original material but the subsequent album release, 'Metamorphosis' (1996) consisted of solely original material penned by Nigel.
UniVibes: How did you come to be asked to contribute to the 'Stone Free' album?
Nigel Kennedy: I'm not really sure! I think it was 'cause my manager looks after Chrissie Hynde who had been contributing 'Bold As Love' and I'd been talking with Alan Douglas... They asked my manager if I'd be into having a go. I'd been playing quite a lot of Jimi's stuff live with a view to maybe recording quite a lot of it once it had developed enough in front of people to see where it was going, and so it just seemed the right time to maybe have a go at 'Fire'. 'Fire' is almost an instrumental song really so it was a fair one to have a go at. I think it was quite an interesting album with all the different stars on there.
UV: Did you chose to do 'Fire' or was it given to you to do?
NK: It was one that I wanted to do and luckily no one else had asked for it - good news!
UV: Was it an easy one to arrange?
NK: Well, every time I do something I do it totally different. Like I put out the record - I did it totally different from how we done it live. And probably if I do it live again it will be a totally different affair. 'Cause I think that's what's interesting about Hendrix - the lateral consciousness that he has. I think integration in music is really what makes originality - it sounds contrary to say it, but I think that's what Hendrix managed to do in such an outstanding way. He had such large ears for so many different things and it all came out instinctively in his playing as one new identity. So, with Hendrix, if you want to take it somewhere there's many directions you can take it in.
UV: So you change the arrangement of it?
NK: Yeah, totally and all the structural things. Whenever I'm at Hendrix's stuff I always totally deconstruct it first, take the ingredients then put them back together in a way which is more aligned with what my musical identity is. 'Cause I never see much point in copying Hendrix - we've got that wonderful guitar playing from him that kind of like spoken singing style. There's no point in anyone copying that - you might as well take some of the elements of his music and have a trip on them.
UV: At the very beginning of 'Fire' is that feedback from the violin?
NK: Yeah, that was on a more art random rock type vibe [laughs]!
UV: Do you remember how many violin parts there are on it?
NK: I think it's quite flooded with violins - I wouldn't be surprised if there's about eight parts on it, including viola which is basically violin anyway. Another thing about the feedback aspect which I'm really into is that I've found nice ways of controlling feedback on the [acoustic] violin. You can get a kind of feedback effect by drawing the bow at a certain speed near the bridge and it's totally opposite of what electric guitar feedback is because it's a softer sound and it's a very intimate sound. The ballads were very intimate songs and so it is quite a nice way to go. I didn't do that on 'Fire' because that's an up number and going somewhere.
UV: How did you come to know Alan Douglas?
NK: He heard me playing on a kid's show one time - I'd done a version of 'Purple Haze' with my acoustic guitar player. He ended up calling me up and asked if I'd like to follow this 'Cherokee Mist' somewhere or pursue some other Hendrix directions. That was something that really appealed to me. I probably wouldn't have come across that idea of my own volition because taking on another person's music is not something you'd do unless you're a bit arrogant. But if you're asked by someone...
UV: I know you've played 'Purple Haze' live quite a bit.
NK: Yeah, what are the other ones? I did a whole tour of Europe last summer doing a load of Jimi's songs like 'Drifting', 'Little Wing' - I love that song, it's got to be a favourite of a load of people. 'Third Stone From the Sun', umm, forgotten the rest at the moment [laughs]!
UV: Have you done 'Foxy Lady'?
NK: Not yet. That's one that a lot of people ask me to do but I haven't really thought of a way of doing it that I relate to yet. But it's a great song.
UV: Can you tell me anything unusual about the arrangements that you did with them or any sounds that you use for them, say for 'Third Stone From The Sun'?
NK: I've done it in different ways including acoustically. I like to take a lot of Hendrix's music into an acoustic direction because it's quite a fallacy to associate Jimi with setting guitars on fire and playing loud - it's one of the things he did but there's a lot of very personal elements to it. And like perfection - how could he do that? And the personal aspect of Jimi's music is really important. Taking it acoustically you can get the same energy but without the same noise. At one point I was arranging it for guitars and bass and acoustic string quartet and that was really quite effective 'cause you'd have everyone hacking away as if they were electric instruments but it would be acoustic ones and the dynamic differential on an acoustic instrument is so much larger so you can really bring things down and take them up again.
UV: Is it difficult to transfer his guitar to the violin?
NK: I don't think so really. I've always thought the electric guitar is a very melodic thing. The reason it was made electric I presume was to sustain notes and so if you're talking about a violin sound and an electric guitar sound I think that's far more similar than an acoustic guitar and electric guitar. So you've got that singing sound which Jimi had and which a string instrument has the possibility to have and once you've got that in mind you just play what you hear in your head and it's a natural thing really. It's more instinctive than anything else - I don't play at all like Jimi. My style might be more similar to Santana or something. I love Jimi's intensity and I sometimes go in that direction but I don't think there's much point in trying to be like someone else - you just put your own stamp on whatever you do. Like when Jimi did 'All Along the Watchtower' he wasn't trying to sound like Dylan and I should think my renditions of Jimi's music are just as different as what Jimi was doing to Dylan - there'd be the same difference. For instance, in 'Drifting' I've got a counter tenor singing the melody and taking it into a totally like spatial vibe.
UV: Have you tried working out any of his solos note-for-note?
NK: No, not really - I did that kind of thing when I was a kid but I've got guitar players all around me who know all that stuff but I don't really see the point in doing something like that.
'Cause Jimi's records have him doing what he did note-for-note and you might as well take it somewhere else. It is possible to play pretty much all of what he did on the violin - obviously you'd have to transpose because you don't have that low 'E' string what a guitar has. I've arranged a couple of things for string quartet that were almost note-for-note out of some of Jimi's guitar playing because a lot of his stuff is quite contrapuntal so it suits a quartet medium but then I kind of veered away from it because Jimi played that stuff so beautiful and no one needs more of that done by other people.
UV: On one of the live tapes I've got of you playing 'Purple Haze' you make reference to the solo.
NK: Yeah, I like to fix a point of recognition then take it somewhere else - it's a mode of reference for people who might know Jimi's work and then can take them along another path hopefully.
UV: Do you ever find the timbre or tone of the guitar is a problem when you're transferring something to the violin if the tone happens to be an integral part of the music? The tone at the beginning of 'Little Wing' is very distinctive and virtually inseparable from the music.
NK: Well, I kind of dispensed with that solo introduction altogether. Normally, I think it's who plays the instrument that gives it its timbre - like BB King and Jimi are totally different. Or McLaughlin or Charlie Christian are totally different. With the violin it's really my voice and I arrange everything to suit that voice really. And so in that respect the music fits what I'm doing because I've got my hands on all of the arrangements and all that type of thing. At least, it suits me - I don't know whether other people will puke up when they hear it or not!
UV: How much improvising do you do?
NK: Pretty much, it's all that really. I write everyone else's stuff out or get them doing something which is some kind of rhythm section or textures then I leave myself free on the top. Apart from thematic quotes which are important to assert what number it is the rest is pretty much improvised. In the same way, I think a lot of Jimi's guitar playing was pretty much improvised. In every great improviser you can identify patterns that happen more than once but on the whole he was improvising when he was doing it.
UV: Does the arrangement evolve as you are actually playing it or do you consciously change it between performances just to try out different things?
NK: To try out different things. I find it's good for a musical progression and for keeping other players on their toes and getting rid of complacency on the stage. If you change something or say 'look, you have a go', it makes everyone listen to each other a bit more closely and from that listening real development can come I think. So, a bit of more self-conscious change is hopefully followed by more natural change because you're just getting people to work off each other.
UV: Can you remember when you first heard Jimi Hendrix?
NK: Well, I never heard him live although I'm probably old enough to have done that [Nigel was born in 1956] but like I didn't hear him until pretty late, probably fifteen or sixteen. At that point I was very much into jazz, the areas where jazz was pervading into rock music or taking inspiration from it and so I got into Mahavishnu and all that so I came into Hendrix from maybe the opposite end of the spectrum than many people might. 'Cause I'm sure Hendrix led people into other types of music - took them into the direction where I was coming from. But that's what I really loved about Jimi's playing - it wasn't stuck in an idiom really. When I was a teenager I still didn't really appreciate everything he was doing as much as I do now. He was such an original voice and at that point I was still looking for a voice of my own and so I didn't appreciate him so much. Now I really appreciate him because he was a voice out on his own there and had the courage to do his own type of music in his own way - which takes a lot. Even then in those days it was not as formulised as it is now but it was kind of like that. People expected the Quarrymen or the Beatles. It was only a bit later that artists started getting brave enough to do their own thing.
UV: And he was charting unexplored territory - he really invented the electric guitar in that context.
NK: Totally, yeah - I don't think there's many players who don't have a slight debt to him at the very least. And he did take that kind of melodic and searing quality of the guitar - he invented it really. Other people have taken it in their own directions now which is great also.
UV: Do you have a favourite Hendrix song or album?
NK: I kind of go for his more introspective stuff rather a lot. This 'Cherokee Mist' thing I really like. I like 'Third Stone From the Sun', 'Drifting' and 'Little Wing' - those three are probably my favourites. But for actually playing myself and having a gas doing it, 'Hey Joe' and 'Purple Haze' are fantastic also. But if I chose one of the numbers to put on at home just for the pleasure of hearing it it would probably be one of the more introspective ones. I think his harmonic consciousness is quite unique as well and I really enjoy that.
UV: Have you played 'Hey Joe' live?
NK: Yeah, done that quite a lot. What you can do with that scale bass line and things - you can really expand that. Turn it in to some monster scale session at the end - quite a laugh! That's a good thing about Jimi's music - it's got some very defined parameters but then other areas where you can just take them as far as you like.
UV: I read a while ago that you were going to do a whole album of Hendrix songs.
NK: Yeah. It's difficult to know how the album's going to turn out because I've been composing quite a lot of music of my own. I didn't have a lot of confidence in it at first but people have started listening to it and really like it so it's more likely to be half and half. There's such a glut of Hendrix orientated albums at the moment - if you include Lenny Kravitz and other people who don't call it Hendrix then there's even more! So, in the way I'm playing Hendrix I don't know whether it will be something that the record industry thinks it needs 'cause I'm not copying Hendrix - I'm doing it in my own way. So a lot of people that know Hendrix might not find anything in common with it at all. That's what I think is great about Jimi's music but it might not be what other people would relate to who might prefer to hear almost carbon copies of what Hendrix done himself. So, it just depends. Definitely going to be 'Cherokee Mist' and 'Little Wing' and three or four numbers but the rest's probably going to be my own stuff... But I just think that maybe at the moment Hendrix is a kind of devalued currency in that everyone is doing it so there's not so much need for an album. An album needs to have its place at the time it's released.
UV: I read that when you're learning a piece of music you try to get inside the composer's head by studying the musical language that they use. You commented that Brahms might use a six bar phrase more than Beethoven. What do you notice about the musical language of Jimi Hendrix?
NK: I think the musical language of Jimi Hendrix that I'm attracted to is the nature of his guitar playing in that it's pushing things as far as it can go - that's always something I've liked to do when I'm interpreting other people's stuff. But also the harmonic thing based on fifths [the chord shape at the beginning of 'Castles Made of Sand' is based on stacked fifths] - I really like that and I'm tending to push that a bit further so instead of just having one fifth on top of the original chord I might put another couple on and see whether the osmosis happens between these sets of harmonies. It's very similar to Bartok in a way - he also based his harmonies on intervals of a similar nature piled on top of each other. I really like that direction and so I've taken that further which is not necessarily something an A&R man will get off on but I think it really sorts out the nature of the chord and finds the root of it.
UV: Have you noticed anything else about his harmonic or melodic language?
NK: Basically the melodic language is almost like speaking really. When it's on the guitar or him singing it's almost like speaking and the bar lengths or the bar numbers aren't necessarily standard, so that's an area that I've also extended so I don't stick to his bar lengths - I've kind of enlarged sections or cut sections and changed the order around. 'Cause he wasn't at all orthodox in his compositional structure and I think that's another nice aspect of freedom which he found really successfully. The songs sound 100% complete but they're definitely not in the same structure as other people of his time were doing them in.
UV: I read that you learnt the Walton Viola Concerto in two or three weeks. Going by that you must find it fairly easy to learn a Jimi Hendrix song.
NK: I think it's what you put into it. Hopefully after six weeks the Walton might have been in better shape [laughs]! But at least I had it from memory and I felt I was able to contribute an interpretation after that amount of time. Whereas with Jimi, I think all music takes time and it's a matter of getting immersed in the mentality and getting some empathy with the music - that's really important and you can't just do that in five minutes. At first I used to start playing Jimi totally in the same structure as Jimi did it then after having lived with it I felt confident to take it in some other directions which were more personal to myself and still have it be very aligned to Jimi I hope. That takes time to find those original areas that you yourself have a lot of empathy with. Learning notes is something that anyone can do at a note factory like Julliard [music school in New York] - that's not a very difficult function but the actual identifying with the music in an emotional way is really important. It takes acclimatisation and living with it. Working it out, playing it in public getting the feel if you're communicating any sentiment or not. The longer the better, really.
UV: You've heard the Kronos Quartet's version of 'Purple Haze'.
NK: Yeah... I think the Kronos is a band that has done wonders for getting commissions off young composers. One performance a year is normally what a modern composer gets and it's not enough for the music to be accepted or to make a living off and they've been very loyal to the composers they've been in touch with and chosen interesting programs. And I really like the way they take responsibility for their performance - they've got someone looking after the sound, they present it well and they play top class as well so it all adds up. For a classical audience it opens their mind up a little bit and for people who don't necessarily like classical music I'm sure they could go in and find something out of it. Including Hendrix among the other composers puts Hendrix in a good light or an interesting light so I like that aspect of it. I'm not sure whether Hendrix without a beat sounds good - to me, instinctively, that's one thing I'd have to say about it which wasn't totally positive. I think Mitch Mitchell and Noel Reading, whatever anyone wants to say, contributed an essential part of Hendrix's music and I think Hendrix wrote his music with that in mind. So I think a beat is imperative in his music - to have that feel and respect for the beat is cooler. So, I do find it odd to hear the music without the beat because I think that's one of the things that makes the melody happen. I think Hendrix is a very integrated type of music and so that to deprive it of one of the the main ingredients is maybe robbing it a little bit. But on the other hand, hearing it played by quartet and realising that a quartet can be an organism that can do something like that is very exciting.
UV: Yeah, you've commented that you thought the Kronos Quartet's version of 'Purple Haze' 'made the capital error in that they overlooked the rhythm of 'Purple Haze'.'.
NK: Yeah, that's just a personal opinion. Obviously, what is interesting is the more people who get into it and shed a different light on it. From that respect it's doing something excellent, putting Western classical music rhythmic concepts into Hendrix - it's a matter of personal taste whether you get off on it or not. It's an interesting thing to do. The Gil Evans' thing I had similar reservations about. I love his harmonies and I'm probably taking it harmonically in some similar directions to what he did...
UV: Do you think he overlooks the rhythm aspect of it?
NK: I feel there's a lack of conciseness there and I think that soloing on it too long doesn't necessarily help it or the direction of the music. I find it a bit dispersed and a bit diluted compared to the original. But the original is a very hard thing - a power trio is the minimal ingredients for getting the most out of it. Some of the Hendrix work I'm gonna do I think is gonna go back to that concept with just violin, bass and drums and develop it from there so that the primal elements come from that. You've got all that space - more responsibility and more to hold down but a lot more creative possibilities if you've got a real understanding between the three.
UV: If Hendrix was alive today what do you think he'd be doing?
NK: Well, that's something else. I dunno, man. I don't wanna be a downer but I just fell that the work he was doing at the very end of his career didn't match up to the work he was doing at the beginning of his career.
UV: A lot of people say he was going into a new phase.
NK: Well, maybe. But it seems that the musicians he was playing with seem to be more derivative and he seemed to be going into this R&B thing which wasn't so original and unique as what he was doing before. Maybe he would have got into something phenomenal every ten years like Miles Davies with some intermediary things in between and it might have been one of those transitional periods. But quite a lot of musicians when they reach fifty don't seem to have that urgency or desire in their music so it's very difficult to tell whether it was that in Jimi already starting to happen or whether it was a transitional period. He was talking about all this orchestral stuff but sometimes I think it can be a bit sorry when musicians start trying to 'get' classical or start trying to 'get' jazz. It can be a little bit of a mistake.
UV: You think it's a bit contrived?
NK: Yeah, sometimes it gets self-conscious. It sounds like Jimi was a very generous person and very open and maybe he would have found some new music form and hopefully he would have steered himself away from thinking, 'Oh, gotta have a symphony orchestra here to make it better' or something. And he would have found some original form with particular musicians. I think the chemistry of a musician and other musicians is always going to be important in music which is played and not programmed and I'm sure he would have found the right people around him to make something special happen in the same way that Zappa did with the Mothers of Invention - he'd get just amazing bands. That's what Jimi needed and I think maybe the musicians he was playing with at the end were brilliant musicians but not on the same vision as him. Although Mitch Mitchell was a fantastic drummer.
UV: Do you change your physical playing style if you're playing rock, jazz or classical?
NK: I think it's pretty similar technique. I like to think that every note that you play has its own technique so if you're playing a 'B' flat and it's in 'B' flat major you're playing it in a totally different way than if you're playing a 'B' flat in 'G' minor which would be expressing some direction because it's not the root note. So, I think every note need its own special consideration when you're playing it. There are some technical differences like the shape and the approaches to notes in the form of slides and things like that are totally different in Jimi's type of music as far as I'm concerned. If you're playing Vivaldi or Bach you'd never approach a note from underneath and slide up to it. I treat the violin much more aggressively in Jimi's music but on the other hand I treat it very aggressively in something like Bartok as well - the violin takes a good pounding in that. Playing acoustic music with no amplification sometimes means that you have to treat the violin more aggressively than if you're playing with an electric violin where you've immediately got the power from other means. So, I think it's difficult to generalise. But definitely the phrasing is different in Jimi's music from any other to any other and...
UV: In what sort of way?
NK: In respect that you approach notes with far more kind of... Not aggression but there's more put into his melodies. Like classical and other music that I've played - it seems like things are over a structure and everything seems to be ordered in a way that something will come next. Whereas, with Jimi it seems like an outbreak from the heart and that you play totally committed to every note that you play. And so you don't like to say. 'Well, I'm gonna play more' or 'I'm gonna save something for later'. There is an innate structure in Jimi's music but every note is 100% - you never get him playing an uncommitted note.
UV: Having played Jimi's music and got to know it well what's you perception of Jimi Hendrix as a person or musician?
NK: I think he was obviously quite a sensitive bloke but he's more known as someone who vandalised guitars and done loads of drugs. But it seems to me he was a very perceptive, intelligent guy. So that side to him is generally lost among the general hysteria about his music. A lot of the musicians who play his music know it but a lot of the general public don't.
© UniVibes 1995 - reprinted by permission of UniVibes, International Jimi Hendrix Magazine, Coppeen, Enniskeane, County Cork, Republic Of Ireland