Kenny Werner: New, Transcendent Sounds
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, but his favorite of all the big band composers is Thad Jones. 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, thatin addition to fine piano performancewriting 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 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, along with a familiar list of jazz greats while he tried to develop his own thing. "I have to say when Keith Jarrett 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, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden. That was my god. That was my John Coltrane 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."