This is far from the first time Nigel Kennedy has performed jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, but there was a big difference on this thrilling first night of a season of eight shows dedicated to the music of George Gershwin. This time there were no electric violins or drums, but only a cello, double bass, and the acoustic guitarists Rolf Bussalb and seven-string innovator Howard Alden.
Cracking gags, clutching a beer and punching fists with his band members, Kennedy was at his most engaging diamond-geezer ease – and the sold-out crowd was reverential when barely audible whistles from his violin’s upper register curled around the silent room, and rapturous when he turned up the heat. “Jewish community, New York energy, jazz, classical” was his crisp tribute to a personal hero as he began his set segueing Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy into Bess, You Is My Woman Now.
Kennedy told the audience that his own debut on the club’s stage was at 14, with Django Reinhardt’s great swing-violin partner Stéphane Grappelli – an introduction to improv looseness and rhythmic audacity that has stayed with him for life. He introduced I Loves You, Porgy’s first theme deep down amid cellist Beata Urbanek’s eerie dissonances before pushing it into swing, developing the second in octave leaps and churning runs before letting it evaporate in soft squeals. The Man I Love was also initially an abstract violin/cello duet from which Kennedy spiralled up into his trademark fast-bowed chordal whirls, delaying the introduction of the melody until it sidled in as a pure-toned top-end whisper that was almost an afterthought.
Summertime appeared in shimmers and sliding pitches, then veered into a leaping hoedown after quietly conversational guitar breaks from Bussalb and Alden, while Urbanek and bassist Tomasz Kupiec joined on a scurrying low-end countermelody – and a hurtling Lady Be Good launched off the back of it brought the house down.
In the second set, Kennedy announced he had turned Rhapsody in Blue “into something that lasts about two and a half minutes”, but he cherished its timeless motifs as a mixture of chunky chord-riffing and elegiac delicacy. He switched to piano for a couple of cautiously hip improvisations that confirmed how well he gets the insinuations and rhythmic ambiguities of jazz, played his own violin composition The Magician of Lublin (dedicated to Poland’s devastated Jewish culture) as a dramatic narrative of curt, sinewy figures and melancholy glides, set the audience clapping on a flying account of Vittorio Monti’s Czardas Gypsy dance, and wound up with an encore on Honeysuckle Rose that teased the grinning guitarists with constant on-the-fly modulations of key.
For much of this show, Bussalb and Alden’s low volume hid their increasingly assured contributions, and the occasional reservations of some jazzers (including this one) about the star’s dependence on favourite improv licks and climax-building devices were not entirely dispatched even on this fine gig. But this was nonetheless a rip-roaring and exquisitely tender performance from a mesmerisingly musical jazz lover, and it suggested that the best of Nigel Kennedy’s jazz-inspired music-making might even be yet to come.