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Kenny Werner: Freeing the Inner Urge

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I realized that a person
It’s a very good bet that pianist Kenny Werner would NOT be high on the invitation list for speakers on the topic of the importance of jazz tradition. For Werner, jazz tradition is something that – at least for him – gets in the way of the creative process.

“Very early in my musical career, I realized that to be an interpreter of an established art form was meaningless for me,” states Werner during a recent telephone interview during the chaotic process of moving to a new home outside New York City. “It’s just not a powerful thing to build my life on. Connecting that inner urge to express myself with the sounds I make is the key, and building on that makes me powerful. That’s the connection that makes all great musicians powerful.”

Werner, who was something of a musical prodigy while growing up on Long Island, finally decided on jazz as his musical outlet after rejecting classical music while studying at the Manhattan School of Music. But the real attraction for Werner wasn’t the musical form itself. It was the concept of improvisation that attracted Werner’s attention.

“When I was 11, I had a single out and made the rounds of various TV shows,” he recalls. “I was sort of like a kid version of Roger Williams, and I also did imitations of other pianists who had hits out at the time – the early 1960s – like Skitch Henderson, Ramsey Lewis and Horst Jankowski, who had a hit called “Walk in the Black Forest.” Looking back on it, I can see that I was always able to imitate and then improvise from that starting point. At the age of three, I would get up on tables and tap dance, imitating people on TV. And when I listened to music – the AM radio, Broadway shows, movie music – I was always attracted to improvise on orchestral, dramatic passages like the things the Moody Blues used to transition between songs or the things on Sgt, Pepper.”

Werner’s success in music led him to his classical studies at Manhattan School of Music, but he soon realized it was not the right course for him, and he transferred to the jazz environment of Berklee in Boston in 1970.

I realized that although I could play classical music, I really had no passion for it,” he explains. So I went to Berklee – not because it was jazz, but because I wanted to improvise. And improvisation, of course, is the language of jazz. By the time I left Berklee, I had been recycled as a jazz artist.”

More importantly from Werner’s perspective, his time at Berklee – and immediately afterward on a visit to Brazil – laid the foundation for his intriguing philosophy of musical creativity. One of Werner’s fellow students was guitarist John McLaughlin, who introduced Werner to the Indian guru Sri Chimnoy. Later Werner sought out lessons from Madame Chaloff, the mother of the bebop baritone sax great Serge Chaloff and a respected piano teacher who had tutored musicians such as Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett.

“She was Yoda in a way,” says Werner with a laugh. “Some people thought their time with her was very mystical and relevant. Others thought it was nonsense. Personally, I got a lot out of my relationship with her. I had always senses there was a connection between spiritual things and expression – between your life and your playing. I learned from her that the spiritual search could become one with the search for music.”

After graduation, one of Werner’s friends at Berklee, Victor Assis Brasil, invited Werner to visit him in Brazil. There, Werner came under the influence of Joao, Victor’s classical pianist brother, who was in the process of recovering from a mental breakdown. Werner adapted Joao’s therapy –which emphasized overcoming anxiety – in his own approach to musical expression.

“It was the next piece of the puzzle,” he states. “I realized that a person’s mind – their neuroses and angst – blocked the obvious steps they needed to take to improve their expression. And then it made sense to me that I really had my own voice in music from the beginning, but that going to school had made me temporarily lose that voice. School is what a call a necessary evil, because you need it to learn the basics of a specific language like jazz. But when you get pulled into acquiring that language, you can turn into just an interpreter of a style rather than finding the power of your own voice.”

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