It’s hard to believe it’s almost 25 years since spiky-haired violinist Nigel Kennedy brought classical music to the masses.
When he released his recording of The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1989 it sold more than two million copies, reaching out to a whole new audience of music fans.
Today the man who shook up the works of Vivaldi and Elgar and brought music by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors to the concert hall, is still as passionate about performing – and enjoying a bit of a party lifestyle when he’s on the road.
Kennedy and his band are currently touring a programme celebrating the music of Bach and Fats Waller – two people who may appear to be poles apart – and he couldn’t be happier than to be spending time with his musicians.
“We’re much more rock ’n’ roll than the proper rock ’n’ roll geezers,” he laughs. “We know how to party.”
The concert begins with a Bach violin solo, after which Kennedy is joined on stage by an acoustic guitarist, double bassist and percussionist to perform his own arrangements of the music of legendary jazz pianist Waller.
“Playing Bach and Fats Waller in one show is a dream for me,” he says. “I like making some kind of juxtaposition between two people who might appear completely different but actually have a lot in common.
“Both were killer keyboard players and were brilliant at harmony and melody structure so why not put them together?
“A whole night of Fats Waller music might be too much and the same could be said of Bach – you don’t want to be playing all serious philosophical stuff as that would leave people feeling depressed, including me.”
While he may be touring fairly large venues – including Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – Kennedy says the tour has a very intimate feel.
“I have a small band and it’s probably the quietest concert I’ve done in the last 20 years,” says the 56-year-old.
“I’ve been very much into my electric violin during the last few years and playing more rocky stuff but I’m now back to playing acoustically. It’s a very personal tour. The concert hall feels like a living room – it’s very informal. I like to achieve an atmosphere where everyone feels relaxed and can get into the music.”
While he may have a reputation for being a bit of a maverick, Kennedy is very easy to chat to and often turns the tables on me during our interview, asking me if I play an instrument.
When I tell him one of my regrets is not learning to play, he shares his early experiences of music-making.
“My mother stowed me under the piano when she was teaching it so I heard it from a very young age,” says the musician, who is from Brighton.
“I started crawling onto the piano stool at the age of four and trying to have a go at playing. Classical music was going on around me so it was natural to try and start playing it.”
As for the violin, he says it was “put on me”.
“My mum’s guilty of two things – calling me Nigel and making me play the violin,” he laughs.
But music also runs in his father’s family. His paternal grandfather was Lauri Kennedy, a British-born musician and principal cellist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra while his grandmother was Dorothy Kennedy, a pianist who accompanied John McCormack and taught Enrico Caruso’s children. His father John Kennedy, who left his mother before he knew she was pregnant with their son, was a cellist.
“My mother didn’t want me playing the cello.”
Kennedy, who also dabbles with the guitar, keyboards and saxophone, says he enjoys performing more and more as he gets older.
“You appreciate things that you might have taken for granted and become complacent about. Being able to get up and just play an instrument in the morning is fantastic. It keeps your feet on the ground.”
As well as his music, Kennedy is renowned for being an avid fan of Aston Villa and can often be found performing wearing a scarf in the football team’s colours. But he admits that his love for the game is waning. He says there’s no loyalty any more from the players who are keen to play for the teams offering the major deals.
“I’m not so enamoured with football any more. There’s no real community – it’s no longer about the football. If I have to choose between a four hour trip to see a game and then a four hour trip back or a walk with the dogs, the canines win out.”
Nigel Kennedy is at St David’s Hall, Cardiff on Thursday. For tickets, call 029 2087 8444 or www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk