Superstar Violinist Nigel Kennedy Reinvents Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”: Watch Two Dynamic Performances

Violinists don’t often make the news these days, but when one does, you can be reasonably assured either that a musical controversy is afoot, or that the violinist in question is Nigel Kennedy. This time, both of those are the case: Kennedy, as The Guardian‘s Dalya Alberge reports, “has pulled out of a concert at the Royal Albert Hall with only days to go after accusing the radio station Classic FM of preventing him from performing a Jimi Hendrix tribute.” At issue is his intent to perform a version of Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” but even with its “Celtic-sounding melody,” that composition was ultimately deemed “not suitable” for the audience.

It seems that Classic FM’s management would have preferred Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, of which Kennedy recorded the world’s best-selling version in 1989. That a classical radio station famous for concentrating its programming on the “hits” and a classical performer famous for deliberately unorthodox musical turns would fail to see eye-to-eye should not, perhaps, come as a surprise.

But then, Kennedy has long displayed a keen instinct for publicity and a tendency to — well, one would say épater les bourgeois, were Hendrix not now regarded as so thoroughly respectable in his own right. As Kennedy sees it, he was “one of the foremost composers of the 20th century, along with Stravinsky and Duke Ellington.”

The guitarist’s exalted status rests, Kennedy argues, on his having “brought all types of music together.” Even in a song like “Purple Haze” — which you can see Kennedy reinterpret with the Polish Chamber Orchestra in 2005, and again at the 2015 Thanks Jim Festival in Wroclaw — musicologists hear traces of both the American blues and the Mixolydian mode, along with such unconventional-for-1967 touches as the diminished-fifth melodic interval, long known as the “diabolus in musica” and the E7♯9 chord, now known as the “Hendrix chord.” Much of the song only uses two other chords, making “Purple Haze” the rare three-chord, under-three-minute rock hit that contains more than enough substance to inspire an unconventionally minded classical musician. But then, try telling that to a program director.

Related Content:

Hear Lost Recording of Pink Floyd Playing with Jazz Violinist Stéphane Grappelli on “Wish You Were Here”

Japanese Violinist Covers Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption”: Metal Meets Classical Again

Watch Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” Performed on a Gayageum, a Traditional Korean Instrument

Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” Shredded on the Ukulele

How Science Fiction Formed Jimi Hendrix

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Yody Dee says:

    I’ve just watched both videos. I suppose the tribute at the RAH would’ve been like the one in the first video (ie. with a full classical orchestra) and it’s quite a masterpiece, fantastic orchestration, dazzling playing by both Kennedy and the orchestra, it’s an electrifying, edgy modern piece and would be valid and welcome in any concert hall.

  • Samuel Wilson says:

    I think it was a fine work and yes he did a wonderful job thank you

  • Dennis Dio Parker says:

    Hmmm … I’m on the fence about this. On the one hand, if I get myself out of my classical mind, this is a pretty cool piece. It does not – for me – come across as “Purple Haze.” I can recognize it as coming from “Purple Haze,” but it does not capture the feel, moment, and mood of the song as a Rock piece, and it is a Rock masterpiece in that world.

    Would it be worth it to me to attend a pay event playing this? Sure! But only if such event does not bill itself as a Classical music activity. Truth in advertising is paramount. If I go with my Classical mindset turned on and then hear this, it will be money wasted and unrecoverable time spent. I will be very unhappy with the event hosts and will have less confidence in what they provide in the future. Tell me that it’s something very alternative that’s a fusion of genres.

    Of course, in the Classical crowd it’s customary to publish in detail what’s appearing at a musical event in the playbill. That gives us the power of choice up front before we make our plans and pay our money. I might stand *one* performance of a piece like this in an otherwise Classical event. More than that, and I’m not going.

  • Penny says:

    I think you put that over very well. I totally agree with you.

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