The Rainlore Interview: Lizzie Ball

Interview concluded: 2011/03/02

Extraordinary violinist and more recently also vocalist Lizzie Ball performs in anything from conventional chamber music to jazz and popular music, often with her own ensembles, and has already had a spectacular career to date. Her enormous eclecticism, combined with her sheer enthusiasm for and dedication to music of many different kinds make her the perfect musical match for Nigel Kennedy, whose Orchestra of Life she leads – an incredibly demanding role. An utterly charming, bubbly young woman whose enthusiasm and deep love of music is completely infectious, Lizzie Ball in an exclusive interview here chats frankly with Rainlore’s World of Music about her varied musical projects, about working with the great Nigel Kennedy, and her group Eclectica!’s new album Flight Of Fancy and lots besides.

Photo of Lizzie Ball

Rainlore’s World of Music: Lizzie Ball, your latest album with one of your many - and indeed very eclectic - projects, your group Eclectica!, which I'd like to return to a little later, is just being officially released. Coming from a classical background, you are also active in jazz, classical-jazz crossover, classically oriented performance of Latin, specifically Colombian music, and even popular music. You work with several ensembles of your own, and are also the leader of and a guest soloist with Nigel Kennedy's Orchestra of Life. You play acoustic and electric violin and have also very successfully turned to singing. A truly astonishing versatility and eclecticism, and all highly enjoyable projects. What, Lizzie, led to this, how and when did your love for and involvement with music and the violin begin? And how did this immense eclecticism come about?

Lizzie Ball: Thanks so much for your comment Rich - I am glad you enjoy all my different projects! My love for music began from very young, and violin came into play from age seven. My late father was a jazz pianist, and my mother used to sing with him in the famous jazz clubs of New York back in the 1970s, where they lived for a while, so I guess it kinda found its way to my genes. I always wanted to play the violin - my mum told me I came home from school one day and was fixated, so much so she had to find me a fiddle and lessons to stop me from going on about it. I always loved all kinds of music. My family would play everything from opera to free jazz on their stereo and this was the kind of environment I always thrived in. It never made sense to me to just concentrate on one kind of music - it just wasn't in my soul to do so. As I grew older I realised that this could in fact be the key to being a really true musician, as most of the great ones that I grew up admiring did just this - their influences came from all different places, musical and otherwise. So far it seems to be going ok! [Smiles]

RWoM: Indeed, on both counts, it seems to be going very well indeed, and about different kinds of music. Ultimately, as you’re implying there, there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. A sentiment that I subscribe to as well, musically, ‘genres’ really don’t make too much sense even if they are sometimes convenient for organising record collections perhaps.

Moving along, how did your involvement with Nigel Kennedy's Orchestra of Life begin? And, perhaps obvious question - was it at all even a little daunting at first to work with Nigel Kennedy, the one-time 'enfant terrible' of the classical world - some insist on still calling him that but at fifty-plus that somehow doesn't quite wash anymore here, especially given his tremendous achievements - and an incredible perfectionist?

LB: Nigel has always been an important figure in my musical journey - I always admired his incredibly unique and impactive approach to the violin and music in general, a no-fear confident attitude which only a truly great musician could do convincingly. I first met Nigel eight years ago, when he started playing with his band at Ronnie Scott’s. We became friends, and he encouraged me a lot to go for my dreams in music. Eventually, as my career began to improve and take off a bit, he approached me last April (2010) to come and work with him as his leader for the orchestra that he had spent so long planning to make happen - any artist’s dream to have their own orchestra, and it was an honour to be asked to be a part of this.

RWoM: So no cause for feeling daunted in any way then, which must have made for a good start I’m sure. And what is it like working with this truly great man and musician that Nigel undoubtedly is, and also working with such a contrasting - yet somehow amazingly well-fitting together - repertoire of baroque and swing?

LB: I can honestly say its been the most wholly encompassing musical experience of my career to date. There have been tremendous highs, and also difficult times when the challenge of working so closely with such a complex artist bring about many levels of existence. Above all, Nigel is a human being, and it’s so easy for people to forget that artists are this first and foremost.

RWoM: Yes, this sadly is so true Lizzie, people do tend to somehow forget this…

LB: In my opinion, his humility and genuine love of music and good music making are what give him his star quality - and he also has that extra special magic on stage, that charisma which has made him so timeless - so to be literally in front of this has been an extraordinary and exciting experience! The repertoire is perfect as the balance of Bach/Vivaldi with Ellington makes for a really fulfilling gig. My role with Nigel is to read his mind, quite literally, as the leader of the orchestra has to transmit the soloist’s intentions to the rest of the group - and as we have no conductor, I also have to keep the orchestra together, so its pretty demanding! [Another winning smile]

RWoM: I can well appreciate that this is a highly demanding role. And there's another 'bridge' if you like between the classical and jazz worlds, in your wonderful string quartet-with-a-difference, Eclectica!, consisting of violin, two guitars and cello. How did this unique concept, in instrumentation and style as well as repertoire, come about? And how did Bernard Gregor-Smith - an iconic figure from the world of the string quartet if ever there was one - become involved? He is obviously so at ease in this setting, and with the style and with improvisation - it's as if he had been born to it!

LB: I love Eclectica! so much. They were the very first group I began my singing with and thank goodness, as it is now such an important part of my life. Bernard I have known for years and I grew up watching the Lindsay Quartet play concerts. He has always had a real desire to play alternative music to classical so he and I got together to see how we could make this a reality. He is fab, as are Nick and Pete – it’s like a family!

RWoM: On Eclectica!'s wonderful debut album And This Is One Of Them... there is a track that really surprised - as well as delighted - me completely, Baionga. Tango Nuevo composer and guitarist Luis Borda sadly seems as good as totally unknown outside dedicated tango aficionado circles in the UK. So his composition on this album came almost as a shock to me, albeit a delightful one. I'm deeply puzzled, who among you is the 'secret' tango connoisseur and came up with this selection? Given your involvement with other forms of Latin American music, specifically Colombian - to which I hope we can return shortly - would I be totally wrong in suspecting that it might be you, Lizzie?

LB: Well I am a tango lover, but actually this track we have to attribute to our previous guitarist, Luis d'Agostino, who is from Buenos Aires! He returned to his native Argentina to live, so Nick took over in 2007.

RWoM: [Laughs] Well, I guess I didn’t see that one coming! As the album was recorded some time after Luis left and was recorded with Nick already, I just didn’t make the connection.

Flight of Fancy is your second album with this incredible line-up that is Eclectica! - yourself on violin and vocals, Bernard Gregor-Smith on cello, and Pete Oxley and Nicolas Meier on guitars - and as mentioned earlier it is about to be officially released. We have of course already had the pleasure of being able to do a very early review of this wonderful album here on Rainlore’s World of Music.

The selection of material here is, in some respects, even more eclectic than on the debut album. At the same time, we see a greater number of original compositions, including for the first time also by Nicolas Meier, bringing with him his Turkish and other influences. We also see some more wonderful vocal performances from you, especially another Joni Mitchell and another Antonio Carlos Jobim. We know Joni Mitchell to be particularly close to your musical heart, and you now seem also to be growing into something of a Jobim specialist, in that you bring something wonderfully fresh and new to his songs?

LB: Thanks Rich, I am ‘rojo’ (red)! Well, we have Pete Oxley to thank for the Joni Mitchell as it was his idea for me to sing her songs, and he has written some incredibly beautiful arrangements of her songs, which make it easy to sing well. Jobim is close to my heart because my brother and his family live in Brazil, and for me it is like a second home. I have walked down Ipanema beach in Rio many times and it’s quite an extraordinary city - so it feels natural to sing in Portuguese.

RWoM: Staying with Latin American connections, I believe we are also about to see a new album with Classico Latino, presenting Colombian music in a classical violin, cello and piano trio context, with Ivan Guevara on piano and Graham Walker on cello. Tell us a little more about this please, Lizzie.

LB: Yes Classico Latino is my longest surviving group - we formed when I was studying in Cambridge in 2000. We have a big following in Colombia, and our next album   is   an   exciting   project   of   totally   originally

composed songs, that are based on all the exciting rhythms of the Colombian folk music. For these songs, we will be collaborating with 6-7 of the best folk/popular Colombian musicians, some of whom are international stars. I can’t say more than this yet, except that we are due to record in June in Bogota!

RWoM: This sounds like a most exciting project indeed. I’ll refrain from pressing you on this, but my curiosity is well and truly aroused with regard to the Colombian guest artists! There is at least one name that must surely be on everybody’s lips in this connection, but we shall just have to wait and see.

Would you also like to tell us a little more about your various other projects? We also saw you on last year's Top of the Pops Christmas Special with the string section for boy band JLS?

LB: This is true! I like to keep my hand in the pop world - mainly as it’s such fun! And I always get to catch up with old friends in the business. JLS were very sweet and all fantastic live singers too. I have just been appointed leader of the orchestra for the highly anticipated Russell Watson Tour starting at the end of this month, so am looking forward to working with him. My band, Lizzie Ball Band, which I front with James Pearson, the highly talented pianist at Ronnie Scott’s, are due to tour in Spain later this year. This is more of a latin/jazz/pop vibe.

RWoM: All in all, you've already had an amazingly varied and eclectic, as well as successful career, especially for somebody so young. What are your aims and hopes for the future?

LB: My aims and hopes are really to continue to consolidate all the hard work I have put in, but above all to really ENJOY and have fun with my music, as this is what is important in the end, for audiences as well as for me. I would love to see my projects touring full time, and I am working towards this with great support from my family, loved ones, and my management. I also plan to bring out my next album, but in the meantime will be releasing some five track digital EPs of duet collaborations with my favourite artists, including James Pearson and Morgan Szymanski. My web site has details of any forthcoming gigs and projects.

RWoM: Enjoying what you’re doing is, ultimately, the most important thing, and we certainly hope that you will continue enjoying your music for a very long time to come so we may continue to enjoy it, too. The duet collaborations are something to very much look forward to, I’m sure, and we shall all await them with baited breath.

In the meantime Lizzie, thank you very much for taking time out from your very busy schedule to talk to Rainlore’s World of Music. We wish you every success especially with the new Eclectica! album and Eclectica!’s forthcoming appearance at Ronnie Scott’s around August [as part of the Brit Jazz Festival, date tbc – Ed.] and of course we hope to see you there if not sooner. Congratulations also on being appointed to lead the orchestra for Russell Watson’s ‘comeback’ tour following his battle with throat cancer, and we wish you all the best for the tour.

LB: Thanks so much Rich and hope to see you very soon!

RWoM: Lizzie Ball, thank you very much indeed.

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