A Beautiful Friendship: Benjamin Koppel and Kenny Werner

Jakob Baekgaard By

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A good friendship is all about communication—two people being able to understand and correspond with each other, creating a sense of togetherness which leaves room for the kind of conversation that goes beyond the mere chitchat of everyday life.

Pianist Kenny Werner and saxophonist Benjamin Koppel have developed a unique musical friendship. Strong artists in their own right, together they are able to chart an unknown territory where the unexpected gifts of improvisational beauty come as naturally as plants growing in fertile soil. So far, the duo has collaborated on three albums that run from swinging post-bop to inspired chamber jazz and modern mainstream. They are all released on Koppel's own imprint, Cowbell Music, and show both musicians in excellent form.

Benjamin Koppel / Kenny Werner / Thommy Andersson / Alex Riel

A Way With Words

Cowbell Music


A Way With Words is a double album that finds Koppel and Werner at their most ambitious, covering a wide spectrum of moods that include the tender balladry of "Quietness" and the knotty free form of "Poor Shostakovich," where Werner uses the full vocabulary of his instrument: quick runs, crisp chord voicings, angry dissonance and meditative use of space and silence.

Koppel is the solo composer of all 16 compositions and he provides challenging material that allows the musicians, including Swedish bassist Thommy Andersson and drum wizard Alex Riel, to put their own stamp on the music. The epic "The Eloquence of...," which closes disc one, is a case in point. It begins with the arabesque patterns of Anderson's bass lines, providing a slow abstract waltz that is soon joined by Werner's bell-like chords and Koppel's elegiac tone that reaches beyond the gloom of a darkening sky. In the background, Riel resides, doing some almost invisible time-keeping, only occasionally using his cymbals with a feathery touch. A Way With Words is a slowly unfolding and deeply engaging musical conversation that conjures a poetic and meditative mood.

Benjamin Koppel / Bobby Watson / Kenny Werner / Pierre Boussaguet / Alex Riel

At Ease

Cowbell Music


Unlike the high art ambitions of A Way With Words, At Ease, as its title suggests, has the air of a relaxed blowing session. Koppel is joined by fellow alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and together they make up a potent frontline, making the horns sing, scream and swirl. "Groovin' Altos," the opening track, is a perfect illustration of the swinging sense of synergy that the two are capable of and Werner, as always, adds impeccable and sensitive backing and French bassist Pierre Boussaguet's walking bass is pure class, providing the light, bouncing rhythms over which Watson and Koppel are able to unfold their fiery playing.

Besides grooving tracks like "At Large" and "At Stake," there is also time for the occasional ballad and Koppel's homage to his mother, "Mother's Song," an 11-minute ballad, which is a beautiful example of Koppel's writing talent. Werner introduces the song with subdued melancholy before the saxophones enter the picture, moaning and stretching the tones with a sense of longing. Most of the time, At Ease is about superior swinging relaxation, but it is the moments where the players slow down that their light shine brightest.

Benjamin Koppel & Kenny Werner


Cowbell Music


Walden distils the musical friendship of Werner and Koppel into its purest and most beautiful essence. It's a duo album where the musings of Henry David Thoreau are translated into poignant poetic sketches that celebrate life by cutting into a fragile state of mind where every note, every sigh from the instruments reveals the intimacy of the mysteries of nature. On "Cows in Emerson's Pasture," Werner creates the soft ebb and flow on the piano, a landscape of ever-inventive harmonies, over which Koppel's saxophone hums like a lonely bird flying around in a misty sky.

What is most fascinating about Walden is that it brings the tactile nature of the instruments into focus while, at the same time, making the melodies soar with ethereal beauty. Ballads such as "Life in The Woods" and "Paradise (to be) Regained" are complex despite their melodic simplicity, deepening as phrases are sculpted and turned into a vibrating work of art. Pianist George Winston's series of records reflecting the changing seasons comes to mind when trying to identify a similar ambitious exploration of nature in sound, but Walden is in a class of its own. It's a high-water mark in the continually inspiring and musically challenging friendship of Benjamin Koppel and Kenny Werner.

Tracks and Personnel

A Way With Words

Tracks: CD1: What Seas, What Shores; Distracted Vocabulary; The Philosophy of; Hammond Street; The Final Word; Poor Shostakovich; Waiting Room; The Eloquence of... CD2: The Monotony of...; A Way With Words; Atomic Alto; Quietness; Conversation Interrupted; Farewell My Heart, My House; Free Bop-A-Lula; End of Discussion.

Personnel: Benjamin Koppel: alto saxophone; Kenny Werner: piano; Thommy Andersson: bass; Alex Riel: drums.

At Ease

Tracks: Groovin' Altos; At Ease; At Large; Con Alma; At Stake; Mother's Song; Alto Stratos.

Personnel: Benjamin Koppel: alto saxophone; Bobby Watson: alto saxophone; Kenny Werner: piano; Pierre Boussaguet: bass; Alex Riel.


Tracks: Walden; Rumours from an Aeolian Harp; Cows in Emerson's Pasture; Where I Lived, and What I lived for; Life Without Principle; Life in the Woods; The Poet's Delay; Paradise (to be) Regained; Walden (in Early Winter).

Personnel: Benjamin Koppel: alto saxophone; Kenny Werner: piano.


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