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Kenny Werner: Freeing the Inner Urge


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I realized that a person
It’s a very good bet that pianist Kenny Werner would NOT be high on the invitation list for speakers on the topic of the importance of jazz tradition. For Werner, jazz tradition is something that – at least for him – gets in the way of the creative process.

“Very early in my musical career, I realized that to be an interpreter of an established art form was meaningless for me,” states Werner during a recent telephone interview during the chaotic process of moving to a new home outside New York City. “It’s just not a powerful thing to build my life on. Connecting that inner urge to express myself with the sounds I make is the key, and building on that makes me powerful. That’s the connection that makes all great musicians powerful.”

Werner, who was something of a musical prodigy while growing up on Long Island, finally decided on jazz as his musical outlet after rejecting classical music while studying at the Manhattan School of Music. But the real attraction for Werner wasn’t the musical form itself. It was the concept of improvisation that attracted Werner’s attention.

“When I was 11, I had a single out and made the rounds of various TV shows,” he recalls. “I was sort of like a kid version of Roger Williams, and I also did imitations of other pianists who had hits out at the time – the early 1960s – like Skitch Henderson, Ramsey Lewis and Horst Jankowski, who had a hit called “Walk in the Black Forest.” Looking back on it, I can see that I was always able to imitate and then improvise from that starting point. At the age of three, I would get up on tables and tap dance, imitating people on TV. And when I listened to music – the AM radio, Broadway shows, movie music – I was always attracted to improvise on orchestral, dramatic passages like the things the Moody Blues used to transition between songs or the things on Sgt, Pepper.”

Werner’s success in music led him to his classical studies at Manhattan School of Music, but he soon realized it was not the right course for him, and he transferred to the jazz environment of Berklee in Boston in 1970.

I realized that although I could play classical music, I really had no passion for it,” he explains. So I went to Berklee – not because it was jazz, but because I wanted to improvise. And improvisation, of course, is the language of jazz. By the time I left Berklee, I had been recycled as a jazz artist.”

More importantly from Werner’s perspective, his time at Berklee – and immediately afterward on a visit to Brazil – laid the foundation for his intriguing philosophy of musical creativity. One of Werner’s fellow students was guitarist John McLaughlin, who introduced Werner to the Indian guru Sri Chimnoy. Later Werner sought out lessons from Madame Chaloff, the mother of the bebop baritone sax great Serge Chaloff and a respected piano teacher who had tutored musicians such as Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett.

“She was Yoda in a way,” says Werner with a laugh. “Some people thought their time with her was very mystical and relevant. Others thought it was nonsense. Personally, I got a lot out of my relationship with her. I had always senses there was a connection between spiritual things and expression – between your life and your playing. I learned from her that the spiritual search could become one with the search for music.”

After graduation, one of Werner’s friends at Berklee, Victor Assis Brasil, invited Werner to visit him in Brazil. There, Werner came under the influence of Joao, Victor’s classical pianist brother, who was in the process of recovering from a mental breakdown. Werner adapted Joao’s therapy –which emphasized overcoming anxiety – in his own approach to musical expression.

“It was the next piece of the puzzle,” he states. “I realized that a person’s mind – their neuroses and angst – blocked the obvious steps they needed to take to improve their expression. And then it made sense to me that I really had my own voice in music from the beginning, but that going to school had made me temporarily lose that voice. School is what a call a necessary evil, because you need it to learn the basics of a specific language like jazz. But when you get pulled into acquiring that language, you can turn into just an interpreter of a style rather than finding the power of your own voice.”

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.

“I never intended to write a book,” he explains, “but when I was teaching students, I seemed to be able to articulate and explain things that were hanging them up musically because of what I had learned myself about the connection between music and creativity. Then when the book came out, I started hearing from seminary students, from golfers and from business people – all telling me my ideas worked in their fields as well. It seems like it now has its own life – its own trajectory. I’ve been doing lectures and seminars, and the book is still selling. I’m not trying to push it. I just stand back and watch it grow.”

Visit Kenny Werner on the web at www.kennywerner.com .

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