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Artist Profiles

Kenny Werner: Freeing the Inner Urge

By Published: April 20, 2004
By the time Werner had returned to New York from Brazil – with a stopover for a year-and-a-half gig in Bermuda – he was intent on working on a musical approach that felt true and real. He rented a loft, where he immersed himself in the New York City jazz scene during the week – and supported himself by playing weddings and bar mitzvahs on Long Island on weekends. By the late 1970s and early ‘80s, he had started a recording career, and was working with the likes of Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp and the Mel Lewis Orchestra.

Over the past two decades, Werner has recorded seventeen albums as a leader, live duet recordings with Toots Thielemans and Chris Potter, and has appeared on over 80 recordings as a sideman. He’s worked frequently with sax great Joe Lovano and trumpeter Tom Harrell, and has also served as pianist, arranger and music director for Broadway and film star Betty Buckley.

Werner has worked in many different contexts – from solo and duos to leading trios and big bands. In fact, he’s recently released Beat Degeneration, a live trio recording featuring his current band of bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Ari Hoenig, and Naked in the Cosmos, showcasing his compositions in big band arrangements with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. For Werner, the various settings all offer different learning experiences – and also provide a variety of outlets for his creativity.

“Actually, I think when you get musicians together, talking backstage, you’ll find the things they’re most interested in talking about are not the things they’ve already done,” he states. They really want to talk about what they’re currently working on and learning. Right now I think I have the most to learn in the area of writing for orchestra. Sometimes I wish I could get a staff job just cranking out music for orchestra. That would help me answer all my questions and I could get to the point of creating what I want to hear in that form. “But as a player, the trio has probably been what I’ve been doing most – and it’s probably the best setting for a pianist. You can still think like a solo pianist, but you have the addition of roots and walking time. So it’s the freest group setting for a pianist. But there’s so much different stuff I’d like to try – piano with strings, an octet, a woodwind ensemble. I think that’s all in me, and I hope I can get to that someday.”

One of the duo settings that has become especially rewarding for Werner has been his ongoing relationship with harmonica player and guitarist Toots Thielemans. For Werner, working with Thielemans offers a unique – and challenging — musical collaboration. “I started playing with Toots and his quartet in 1995 and it was a lot of fun,” he says. “I’ve never thought of myself as a really great sideman because I tend to reinterpret the music every night. But Toots – even at his age – really liked that about my playing. After the first set we ever played together, he came to me at intermission and said, ‘Kenny, that’s great, man! Throw me in the water as much as you can.’ Then he put his arm around me and added, But don’t let me drown!’ That’s such a great attitude. There are many players much younger than him who can’t handle that kind of creativity underneath them.”

By accident, Werner and Thielemans happened to play a duo concert a few years ago. The reaction was so positive that they’ve continued to work together in that intimate format, and released a critically acclaimed live recording on Verve in 2001. According to Werner, it’s a musical relationship that’s built on openness and a mutual love of harmony and melody. “Toots is as open to having a musical conversation as anyone I’ve ever played with,” he comments. “He has a certain aged way of expressing the music that’s like a finely aged wine. Even though he’s older than I am, we both remember the music of the 1940s and ‘50s, and we like the same movie themes. If you have a sense of melody and classic harmony, there’s nobody left on earth you could indulge it with as deeply as with Toots. It’s almost like playing with Frank Sinatra in a way. Fred Hersch probably put it best when he said, ‘Playing with Toots is like playing with the hippest singer in the world.’ It’s just music that never seems dated.”

In addition to his musical talents, Werner has become noted for his book, Effortless Mastery, which presented his musical philosophy to assist musicians in improving their creativity. Published in 1997, the book has gained a cult following, garnered sales around the world – and attracted interest far beyond the world of jazz musicians.

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Download jazz mp3 “The God of Time” by Kenny Werner