James Kennerley, right, will perform with Motor Booty Affair on Saturday at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Photo by Tim Pro Media LLC

James Kennerley remembers seeing flamboyant piano man Elton John on the British TV show “Top of the Pops” some 30 years ago and thinking, “I want to be one of those guys.”

He began playing the piano as a boy in England, largely because his parents had one, but soon developed a passion for organs. He was drawn to the big, loud, powerful pipe organs found in concert halls and churches that can emulate the sound of a whole orchestra. While working for more than a decade as a church and concert organist, he has developed a strong belief that pipe organs can do more, musically, than people realize. It was that basic idea – along with his talent – that helped the 35-year-old Kennerley get hired as Portland’s municipal organist in 2017.

Kennerley believes the city-owned Kotzschmar organ, built in 1912, can and should appeal to mainstream audiences who grew up on pop and rock, including people who grew up listening to Elton John. Now in his second full season as Portland’s municipal organist, Kennerley will test his theory Saturday when he plays a concert of 1970s dance hits alongside Maine-based disco tribute band Motor Booty Affair at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

“These organs were intended to be a source of mass entertainment, they were really the greatest source of entertainment at the time, with all the sounds they can make,” said Kennerley, talking about the Kotzschmar and similar organs of its age. “I have a strong belief that music is for everybody.  We can do much more with it.”

He’ll certainly being doing things with the Kotzschmar on Saturday no one else has. He’ll be encouraging people to shake their booty, get their groove on and do their best impersonation of John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” The tunes scheduled for the show include several Bee Gees dance classics from the ’70s: “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing.” Other hits on the bill include “Get Down Tonight” by KC and the Sunshine Band, “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” by Barry White, “Car Wash” by Rose Royce and “Dancing Queen” by Abba. Kennerley will also perform medlies of ’70s TV and movie themes, including “The Brady Bunch” and “Charlie’s Angels,” while the members of Motor Booty Affair change costumes.

James Kennerley in “Phantom of the Opera” garb at a Halloween concert at Merrill Auditorium in Portland this year. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

CRANK IT UP TO 11

Although the Kotzschmar organ is owned by the city and built into the city-owned Merrill Auditorium, it is programmed by the nonprofit Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, created in 1981. The group hires the municipal organist – a part-time position with a salary of $25,000 – with the city council’s approval. About 100 years ago, there were municipal organs in cities and towns all over the U.S. Today only two have official municipal organists, Portland and San Diego, California. The organ has more than 7,000 pipes and 330 keys. Its wind chest chamber could fit about 50 people, and its main organ chamber is big enough for about six tractor-trailers. Both are not visible to the public, who see only the console and a wall of pipes.

Kennerley replaced Ray Cornils, who held the job of municipal organist from 1990 to 2017, longer than any of the 10 municipal organists who came before him. He was known for his Christmas with Cornils holiday concerts and for a Halloween performance accompanying silent films. The remainder of the season was mostly a mix of traditional organ pieces.

When the Friends board began looking for a replacement, members wanted to find someone who would have “a younger, broader vision of what an organ can mean today,” said Larry Rubenstein, a board member and former board president.

“A lot of organ music has traditionally appealed to church-going people and people above a certain age, people who viewed it as a classical instrument,” said Rubinstein. “We were looking for (an organist) willing to try new things.”

Kennerley was asked in interviews with board members if he’d consider performing on the organ with jazz groups, rock groups or disco groups. He said yes to them all. Kennerley had first heard recordings of the Kotzschmar organ when he was about 15, and knowing how big it was and how it was made, he knew that it could play any kind of music.

“I’d say that was the single, most attractive thing about the job, that I could play this organ, and I knew the sky would be the limit,” said Kennerley, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and also works as director of music at St. Paul’s Parish there.

Soon after Kennerley was hired to play the Kotzschmar, Rubinstein suggested the Motor Booty Affair pairing to him. It was suggested to Rubinstein by his friend Jamie Isaacson, owner of the Portland House of Music, where Motor Booty Affair has played. Kennerley met the members of the band, who’ve been playing disco and funk tunes for 23 years, and took them on a tour of the organ’s pipes and the interior, unseen chambers where the sounds are made.

“Before meeting them, I thought there wouldn’t be any rock band that would want to play with the organ,” said Kennerley. “Early rock music had a lot of organ music in it. Organs are perfect for rock because you can really crank the sound up to 11.”

Kennerley was surprised to find that Motor Booty Affair has its arrangements of ’70s dance and funk tunes scored for orchestras and has performed with orchestras around the country. At first, the band members had a hard time imagining what a show featuring them and the organ might sound like, said Mike Kallis, who plays guitar in the band under the name Superfly. But then the band had an informal jam session with Kennerley. They were impressed with how he could look at their scores for orchestras and play the various parts on the organ.

“He can do horns, strings, voices. He’d look at our scores and say, ‘Oh I can cover this, I can cover that,’ ” said Steve Noyes, who plays guitar in the band under the name Cyclone Link Skywalker Jr. “I think it’s going to blow people away, both Motor Booty Affair fans and fans of the organ.”

Kallis and Noyes said that a lot of the ’70s disco tunes they do work well with orchestras, since a lot of them were heavily orchestrated with strings and horns. So they’ll also work well with the organ, which was constructed to be something of a one-person orchestra.

KOTZSCHMAR DREAMING

Kennerley grew up in Essex, outside of London. His father was a party deejay for a time and had played guitar in rock bands as a young man, including with Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, before Knopfler became famous. Kennerley’s father didn’t pursue a music career, though, and instead became an architect, focusing on historic preservation.

When Kennerley was 5 or 6, his grandparents gave his family a piano. He played it so much his parents had to put a lock on the keyboard cover, so he wouldn’t play day and night. He got his musical education at his local church, which he says is common in England. He sang and started playing the organ.

He studied concert music and dreamed of being an organist in a big church. He also began daydreaming about playing Portland’s Kotzschmar organ when he was about 15. He had heard a recording of it being played and was blown away.

“It had a sound that was intergalactic, exotic,” said Kennerley. “I thought it would be great to play an organ like that, to give music the star treatment.”

He studied music at Cambridge University in England, where he got a bachelor’s degree, and later got a master’s from the Juilliard School in New York City. While studying in New York, he got booked to play concert halls and churches in the area, including Carnegie Hall. It was also in the city that he met his wife, Emily, a professional opera singer. The couple have a 4-month-old son, Noah.

Portland’s municipal organist, James Kennerley, is in his second season on the job. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ

When he was hired as municipal organist, Kennerley was still living in New York, working at a church there. When the job at St. Paul’s in Cambridge came open this year, he jumped at the chance to live closer to Portland. Now, when he comes to Portland for performances, meetings, organ tours or visits with school kids and other groups, he only has to drive two hours.

For Halloween, Kennerley gave a performance at Merrill Auditorium in costume, as both the Phantom of the Opera and a ’70s-era disco dancer. He performed a short program accompanying silent cartoons, then a longer program backing the 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin.” He’ll dress up in ’70s attire for the show with Motor Booty Affair, titled Booty and the Beast.

In December, he’ll perform a Christmas show of traditional favorites, then a Bach birthday show in March. There are 11 events on the Friends of Kotzschmar Organ schedule for the 2019-’20 season, though not all include Kennerley. Guest organist Jens Korndoerfer played a program in September that included some selections from the “Lord of the Rings” films. Besides the Motor Booty Affair show, none of the other events are focused on rock, funk or pop.

Kennerley will continue to do traditional organ music and classical music, the types of programs that have kept a core audience filling the seats at Kotzschmar organ shows. But he also envisions doing other collaborations with different kinds of groups and performers in the future, possibly a modern dance troupe or ballet dancers. He’d also like to do a laser light show, the kind of thing usually seen in planetariums with Pink Floyd playing. So far in his tenure as municipal organist, which began in 2018, Saturday’s disco show is probably the most adventurous thing Kennerley has presided over, though he does try to be creative and improvise during other shows, including at the annual Christmas concert, where he takes suggestions from the audience.

“The organ doesn’t move, it weighs 70 tons, so the challenge today with how busy everyone is and how much competition there is for people’s time, is how do you get people to come and hear it,” said Kennerley. “We want to share this great instrument with the community.”


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