It's hard to believe that a jazz musician would be fired for trying to create something new every night, but it's happened to pianist Kenny Werner. "I'm a lousy sideman, he says in the liner notes to Democracy: Live at the Blue Note. Fortunately, this is his gig, and its loose exploratory nature proves it's not necessary to abandon symmetrical time or change-based structure to keep things sounding fresh, night after night.
This may be Werner's gig, but the title says it all. He surrounds himself with a group of like-minded players, including bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, who feel like two halves of the same organism. Matt Shulman is a sharply focused trumpeter who bears some comparison to Kenny Wheelerwho, coincidentally, makes a guest appearance on the album's closing two tracks. Saxophonist David Sanchez has, in recent years, transcended his Latin roots, evolving into a significant player in any context.
Earmarks of Werner's desire to "create new stuff on the bandstand every night begin with his gentle solo intro to "Democracy Now. Gradually building towards a two-chord vamp that signals the band in, its theme is a brief but complex statement. Sanchez and Shulman are the primary voices, but Colley and Werner provide occasional counterpoint and Blade creates a turbulent undertow that pulls everyone forward into the solo section.
Blade's intuitive strength on the lithely swinging, Wayne Shorter-inspired "Fish Gotta Fly elevates Werner's already imaginative solo to even higher ground. And when the band drops out in the middle of the balladic "Untitled Lament, Werner proves himself on the same plane as Keith Jarrett when it comes to spontaneous invention.
Jazz artists have been inspired by singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell's innovative guitar voicings for years, but Werner's buoyant "One for Joni captures her distinctive language and phrasing better than most. Blade and Colley give it an ever-so-slight gospel-cum-funk underpinning, and Werner delivers his most resonant solo of the set.
Wheeler joins the group for the set's finale. "Intro to Hedwig's Theme is a freely lyrical duet with Colley that leads into the minor-key main body of the tune. Sounding at first like something out of the soundtrack to The Elephant Man, it morphs into a Coltrane-like modal workout where Sanchez starts simply, but builds into referential cascading flurries and high pitched screams. Wheeler's brief solo is a fiery counterpoint to the gentle lyricism of his own recent It Takes Two! (Cam Jazz, 2006), while Werner's solo is, once again, uncannily supported by Colley and Blade.
The multifaceted Democracy might make you wish you'd been there, but it's even better news that it's been documented, allowing you to discover something new with each and every listen.
Personnel: Kenny Werner: piano; Brian Blade: drums; Scott Colley: bass; David Sanchez: saxophone; Matt
Shulman: trumpet; Kenny Wheeler: trumpet (5,6).