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Kenny Werner: New, Transcendent Sounds

By Published: October 11, 2010
When Werner thinks of composition and orchestration, "It's helpful for me to sort of have a script in my mind. When that script is my own life, there's nothing stronger than that. Then it's helpful for the notations put on the paper for [the musicians] to know what their phrases mean. I feel like it's a new thing. It's something I hadn't done as overtly as I did here [on the new recording]."

Kenny Werner Quintet, from left: Werner, David Sanchez, Randy Brecker Scott Colley, Antonio Sanchez

The germination of No Beginning No End was not the death of Katheryn. It evolved into that. But prior to the event, Werner was commissioned, in early 2006, to write for wind ensemble to commemorate the 80th birthday of Bradford Endicott, a noted supporter of the arts in Massachusetts. It was to be performed by musicians at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Werner was busy with other writing, as well as performing, and planned to settle down in the fall of 2006 to work on the commissioned piece. After the tragic accident, the project was let go for a time. To get away, the Werners accepted an invitation to stay at a friend's place in Puerto Rico. There was talk of turning down the commission.

"As we were down there, we started to meditate and chant a lot," something the family had been involved in for some 20 years, he notes. "Sometimes, in that space, as bad as things are, when you start doing practices like that you have moments of illumination. I know when that's starting to happen for me because I start writing some poetry." The result was a poem he finished on death and transition and the connection between lives and souls, "the ongoing journey, rather than the illusion that everything began at birth and ended at death."

"As I wrote the poem, I had an epiphany that I would write a piece that would center on the poem and the music would go around it," he recounts. "I had a cast of characters. I would then enlist Judi [Silvano] to be sort of like the narrator was in [the Pulitzer Prize-winning play] Our Town. Or in the Indian music, the root. The pedal of each raga is called the 'sa.' She would be the sa. She would be the root from which everything would develop. Joe [Lovano] would play the character—would be Katheryn. And the orchestra would pivot around that, but the voice would remain steady and centered. It would be the voice of the wisdom.

"I suddenly knew what I wanted to do," says Werner. He wrote incessantly, day and night, planning for the wind ensemble to surround the words. He was in constant communication with Fred Harris, conductor of the MIT ensemble. "In a way, it got me going again. There was no time to feel down. If I had gigs, I was writing after the gig. By March [2007], I had a movement or two ready to go so that I had something to rehearse. Throughout March I finished it. There was a lot of back and forth between me and the conductor [Harris]. Writing this haphazardly, there were probably a lot of mistakes and things I really didn't mean. Or things I wasn't seeing on my computer screen. Fred Harris was wonderful. We went back and forth. He'd record the rehearsals. We'd talk about stuff. This might work better. That might work better. He was as involved in the piece as I was. Then in May, we performed at MIT."

Werner says the piece was ragged, "unfinished, in terms of how I thought it out. When you compose, you write something, but it really comes together as you rewrite it. You have a perspective of what you've already written and you can see from a little bit from that perspective: Less of this; more of that. But it had a lot of little powerful moments in it, as the audience realized."

Werner says with many commissions, they are played as scheduled, and often times never again. Or rarely. "But I had vowed to myself that I need to play it again, and I need to play it in New York. And get high-level musicians—if not professional, then the most talented students and some professionals—and record it. I really wanted this to go out." In 2008, Jeff Levenson, of Half Note Records, heard the concert recording and wanted to record it. Werner went to work rewriting and expanding the concept, but with the same "No Beginning No End" theme in mind.

With the help of Dave Schroeder, the head of jazz studies at New York University Steinhardt School, enough musicians were rounded up and the NYU concert hall was garnered for recording in August of 2009. "We budgeted four or five days. We were done after three days and the third day wasn't even a whole day," notes Werner. "That's how it happened. I got that rare chance to rewrite something. I had a recording of it since 2007, a personal recording. I got a chance to listen to it and reevaluate and realize there's a lot of chaos in the piece, because the piece is meant to have chaos in it.

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