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Interviews

Kenny Werner: New, Transcendent Sounds

By Published: October 11, 2010
The music Werner created in this context could be considered a triumph over tragedy. It could also just be, as he states, dealing up-front with adversity and moving forward. Seeing past the clouds and helping push them away.



Either way, the music is impressive. Expressive. Expansive. It's a remarkable achievement for someone who a distinguished career as a composer and arranger. It's compelling, blurring genre lines like classical and jazz. It brings emotions to the surface, and close listening can't help but paint mental pictures and bring about some degree of contemplation.

Werner cites French composers like Ravel and Messiaen as major influences when it comes to writing. Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was also an early influence. Among the Americans who Werner paid attention to is Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer
1929 - 2011
trombone
, but his favorite of all the big band composers is Thad Jones
Thad Jones
Thad Jones
1923 - 1986
trumpet
. The 58 year-old entered Manhattan School of Music as a concert piano major in the late 1960s and transferred to Berklee School of Music in 1970. It didn't seem then, perhaps, that—in addition to fine piano performance—writing and arranging would become a strong suit.

After joining the New York City jazz scene, he eventually wrote his first big band piece for the Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis
1929 - 1990
drums
Orchestra, "Compensation," which took him "a year or two to write...I was severely hampered by the fact that I had a terrible cocaine addiction. I also hated using a pencil. I'm lefty. Using a pencil is excruciating. Between that, and being a drug addict, it took me about one to two years to write that piece. I had to come home for the evening and still have some coke left in my pocket to write. As you can imagine, that was extremely rare," he admits.

"There was a lot to learn," he says. "I'm a poor student. So I would make my mistakes in public on those pieces. The next thing I wrote was called 'Bob Brookmeyer.' It's not played too much, but I'd like to pull it out and play it again. I got it up to 1,000 bars. The guys in the band said it was the first piece they ever played that was 1,000 bars. I realized it was way too long, so I wrote it again."

His experience writing for Mel Lewis got him commissions from Europe, including the Danish Radio Orchestra, the UMO Jazz Orchestra in Finland, the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands and the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra in Sweden. "Some of my first chances to write for extended orchestra was for Metropole. This is how I learned," he says. "I basically did things, screwed it up, and learned for the next time. But the pieces were very strong themes to countermand the lack of expertise in certain orchestration things."

Donald Erb, a composer from Cleveland, was also a key influence. Werner says Erb is "a ferocious writer. He also influenced me as a person. I got to hang out with him at Gunther Schuller's workshop in Sandpoint, Idaho. He inspired me to remember that this was originally what I wanted to do. I didn't originally want to become a jazz musician. I wanted to be an orchestra writer that wrote for movies. I came out of school so messed up I went with the flow. Before I knew it, that's who I was. I was a jazz musician. Donald Erb reawakened that sense in me to write for the orchestra and still wield it as a voice."

As a pianist, the young Werner listened to Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
, along with a familiar list of jazz greats while he tried to develop his own thing. "I have to say when Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
came along, for about 10 years it wiped everything out for me. He played the way I wanted to play. The other guys played the way I wanted to know how they played. Keith played the way my heart wanted to play. Throughout the 70s, it was Keith Jarrett and his marvelous quartet with Paul Motian
Paul Motian
Paul Motian
1931 - 2011
drums
, Dewey Redman
Dewey Redman
Dewey Redman
b.1931
sax, tenor
and Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden
b.1937
bass, acoustic
. That was my god. That was my John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
quartet. Pouring over those records over and over."

"I guess I would have to say Bill Evans was the most influential, because I still hear Bill Evans in my playing. I play something and I know it comes from some of his sweetest moments on records like You Must Believe in Spring (Warner Bros., 1977). Keith was my favorite, but I was never good enough to sound like him. But I can hear myself and I know I'm sounding like Bill Evans."


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