Kenny Werner: New, Transcendent Sounds

R.J. DeLuke BY

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It becomes profound when the music is used to describe something that no other language can describe, that words can only hint at.
Inspiration behind art is a curious thing. It takes many forms, from personal to universal perspectives. Many times it's unexpected. It is intertwined with one's life and the vicissitudes therein. As Charlie Parker famously said, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

For pianist/composer/arranger Kenny Werner, music has evolved, over time, into a direct expression of his being, less about a series of notes on paper.

"For me, music is not the message, it's the messenger," he says. "If you don't have something to express with the music, if your expression is 'Here, look what good music this is,' then It can only go to a certain level of depth. It becomes profound when the music is used to describe something that no other language can describe, that words can only hint at."

Self expression, exposing to the world the sound of one's own voice, is becoming more paramount in his musical intentions. As a teacher at The Steinhardt School of Music, attached to New York University, he sees many talented young musicians, "But what I do notice about young players is that it's just music. They're playing this kind of music and that kind of music. For me, it's gotten so far away from even the word 'music,' let alone the word 'jazz.' These words just disappear. If you put your fingers in your ears and actually hear your voice from within, it becomes more like that. It becomes more of a dialogue between you and your impulses and urges and emotional goalposts. It becomes all about that. If you look up and go, 'whoa, what kind of music is that? I don't even know.' You just look up to see who's following it and who's not . The more it becomes like that, the stronger the music gets as a voice of something. That seems to come with age, no matter how great you play."

That kind of art is no more on display that Werner's latest offering, No Beginning No End (Half Note Records, 2010). It's a highly personal statement, called by Werner himself "the most important music I will ever write." And it was brought about by a tragedy in the life of Werner and his wife Lorraine—the death of their beloved 16-year-old daughter Katheryn in an automobile accident in 2006. The Werners were, naturally, devastated. But with the help of their Eastern-based faith and philosophy, and what had to be their personal integrity, they dealt with the events and moved forward.

For the pianist, it served as a huge inspiration to create a stirring and profound recording that not only brings out the emotions of the tragic event, but feelings about existence—that life is not an end and death is not an ending. Also employed to great effect is the expressive saxophone of Joe Lovano and the strong voice of his wife, Judi Silvano.

The opening titular suite is broken into segments titled "Death Is Not the End," "Loved Ones," "The God Of Time," "Astral Journey" and "We Three," fashioned by orchestra, Lovano, Werner and Silvano. "Visitation: Waves of Unborn" is an ethereal piece carried out by 36 voices, and conducted by Brian P. Gill, while "Cry Out" is brought to life by a string quartet and "Coda" provides the final statement, carried out by Werner, accompanied by harp, vibraphone and marimba.

It's powerful music. One might even say brave music, because nothing is covert. Werner deals with the situation up front and head on. From the opening, Lovano's fluttering and Silvano's searching voice leads up to a sudden barrage of percussion about 40 seconds into the music—foreboding and malevolent. Werner is frank with the intent. He notes the fluttering in the beginning is representative of Katheryn's naturally excited state of mind as she drove home in early October 2006 from her martial arts class. The resounding percussion is the accident. Lovano's busy statement afterward, says Werner, is his daughter's spirit: "You've just been thrust into a web of angels and you're confused."

It isn't the typical tribute or musical memorial to a lost friend or loved one, of which there are many in the annals of music. It faces the tragedy head-on and contains moments of anguish as well as beauty. It also has the sense of a musical journey, one that illustrates the spiritual journey, guided by Werner's beliefs. Lovano has said he felt Katheryn's energy, even guidance, while playing the music. Fred Harris, who conducted the orchestra, has spoken of divine intervention and acknowledged Katheryn's spirit is at the forefront of the music.

Werner's belief system is something he has been involved in for two decades, yet one that eschews publicity. It's not pushed on anyone, and the music resonates with humanity, no matter the perspective. This is strong and passionate music.

"Things come from a profound peace and they always move back to a profound peace. That is the pedal point of life, or, if you believe, between lives," he says. "So no matter what has happened to us and no matter what had gone on, it had to return to the reality. No matter what you've gone through, this is what you always come back to. In some ways, the whole record is more of a theater piece than I've ever done. And in that way, it's an epiphany because I realize that's really where my musical head is at. More like a movie; more like a drama. When there's a motivation behind a melody, it has to do with an actual emotion or action. If you say: this line here you're starting to reach for a light. In this line here, you were disappointed again."

Kenny and Katheryn Werner

These feelings of Werner's are not just about the new recording. They carry forward in his ongoing musical journey.

"If a musician has an emotional relationship to chords," he says, "[he or she] can use them to much greater effect. Because they know this chord starts to lift me up; this chord really confirms the futility of things; this chord denies the futility of things. You can set up a play. I tell my students, you can't just know chords. You have to have a relationship with them. That's a game within a game... students, and even other musicians, are not as profound as they could be. They're thinking about music. If you just think music, it can only go to a certain depth."

Werner, heavily involved in education, wants his students to be emotionally aware when it comes to music, and their experiences play a part in that.

"Think about what happened the day you had a baby. Did you write a tune within that week? Is it not the deepest tune you've ever written? Think about breaking up with someone, because not too many people have had an experience like I've had to think of. How sad were you? How did you play that day? What tune did you write? How heartfelt was it? The cruelty of it, I always say, is that the sadness wears off," he says with a chuckle. "The sadness was such an incredible motivation for the technology of music that you already knew—but now it has a purpose."

Because strong emotions eventually wear off, Werner says. "I have to get interested in writing something with something less because I don't think that anything could impress me emotionally as deeply as [the tragedy] did. How do I go from here and find meaning in what I'm writing, I guess is what I'm saying. Because I have plenty of improvement to do in the technical field of orchestration. That's my lifelong study. But how am I going to find a motivation as deep as that? On the other hand, I sure hope the fates don't provide me with a motivation as deep as that. Thank you very much. I don't need all that just to get a piece of music out."

However, "It took me to another place in terms of what music means. I don't want to come off of that. It's too powerful," he explains.

Living life—as Charlie Parker ("Bird") opined and as Werner espouses— creates paths that can lead to greater wisdom. It's something Werner admires in musicians like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. "What Herbie does, he moves like leaves in the wind. I don't see myself being able to do what Herbie's doing. I think you just have to become 70 to find out what that's like. You can't practice what he's doing. You have to be his age. The same thing with Wayne. Chris Potter and I were talking about Wayne. Nobody can play more horn at this point in time than Chris Potter. And yet he marvels at how little it takes for Wayne to do something that transcends all of that. I think that takes us back to the Eastern concept of transcendentalism. What transcend means is that things we think are important disappear. And what is left is what is, it's what we tune into."

"That's what I'm trying to express" in my No Beginning No End, Werner explains "When you're not transcending, you are punched in the stomach and in the face by things that happen to you. Or you feel lifted up by things that happen to you. I call the bad stuff the clouds and the transcendent part the sun. Because the clouds change every day. They disappear. They come back. Sometimes the clouds are so thick that you would think there is no sun. Yet you never doubt the sun. Those clouds are going to change from day to day and sometimes they're not going to be there. So aspiring to transcendence means paying as little attention to the various cloud formations as possible, while keeping your eye on what never changes. What is always. Total light."

He adds, "I look at it as more of a survival technique. We're artists. If nothing happens to you, it's hard to say anything. if you don't synthesize that into a voice, it might strangle you."

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.

"Accidents are very often chaotic moments. But I'm not enough of a technician, as far as orchestration, to hit the chaos right on the button and not have to change anything. There are writers that can dash their things off and then send them away. I have to hear them and then write them again. I had to weed through the chaos that worked and the chaos that was exacting, and attach parts of it that maybe I didn't think were the strongest parts in the beginning, and now I realize that they were. I had the benefit of hindsight and really improved the piece a lot. Between that and the time we had to rehearse it and the level of players, we got a performance that I was pretty happy with."

"That's the story of that piece," remarks Werner. "Retaining the anguish of the melody, I was able to craft, a couple years later, the rest of it and not lose the anguish. The choir piece ["Visitation: Waves of Unborn"] came as a sort of divine intervention. Both Jeff and my wife Lorraine thought there should be choir on the piece. The suggestion that I write choir for it made me feel I had to write a choir piece also, as a companion piece. I ended up keeping the companion piece and never writing a choir part. Which was great. Now we had a five-movement wind ensemble, a choir, a string quartet, and then what I call 'Coda,' pulling some of the mallet players and the harp player, Riza Hequibal, she is just amazing. She's such a great player and so good improvisational. Riza played what I intended to write, whether it was that way or not. She could figure out what it was I was trying to say and where it needed to be situated."

Werner joined on piano in "Coda," based on the idea of an Indian raga.

The composer is also quick to credit Lovano for his engaging way of carrying out Werner's writing and feeling.

"I don't know if there is anyone else who could have done that because a lot of what he played was written. It was written to sound like him," he says of Lovano's participation. "You might say why did I write them? Why didn't I just let him blow through? Because this thing moves in an incredibly precise way and yet the idea is the same thing I try to achieve in my trio. As precise as it is, it should feel like things are flowing into each other. The importance of the precision has to be done from a relaxed place; leaves blowing in a tree. Who can predict what it's doing? But it's moving perfectly. Waves coming in and out. The band moves like that and undulates like that. Then has these points where they meet. There has to be great precision that is done with ease. If you listen to the fourth movement and some of the second movement, he has to move in a very precise way. You find the band backing him up almost as if I was comping for him. The only way to do that is for him to play the lines where they're supposed to be played.

"This is what Joe has evolved into as an artist. He was, when he was younger, as burning as anybody could possibly burn. He'd burn you out—he'd burn out the drummers, he'd burn out the piano players. It was almost better not to have a pianist. He has evolved into a player where every phrase has such wisdom in it."

Lovano and Silvano did not record live with the orchestra, but the results are impressive. "It sounds like there's no time at all, yet things are meeting," says Werner. "He's doing this in a little box of a studio without a conductor. It's quite phenomenal when you add the fact t that he can't see a conductor to say, 'OK, right here is where the bass clarinets are going to meet you.' So he's doing all that."

Adds Werner, "I don't think Joe knows how to play a phrase anymore without wisdom and depth to it. He can't just play notes. If there's one benefit in going from young to old, that's probably the benefit. Some people get more wisdom as they get older, but not everyone who gets older becomes wise. There are some musicians where the wisdom and the depth... Wayne Shorter. Elvin Jones. Herbie Hancock. Every decade you see them, it seems like every sound was drenched with more meaning, depth. Two notes from Wayne Shorter would wipe out a thousand from any young guy. Joe is like that. Every phrase has this depth, wisdom, meaning, grace. Joe can be classic and be new at the same time. It's crazy. He plays new, fresh stuff in a classic way. Of all the guys alive right now, he's practically the whole damn tradition of the music. I always call Joe a purebred. Me, I'm a square peg in a round hole. I didn't exactly fit jazz, I didn't exactly fit this, I didn't exactly fit that... spend a lifetime trying to find parameters that are you. Hopefully, someday you're appreciated for that."

Werner received a Guggenheim Fellowship for the work and hopes to be playing it live in the larger New York City venues like Alice Tulley Hall, Carnegie Hall, Zankel Hall or Jazz at Lincoln Center. "If we do that, we'll do it just as it goes down. The wind ensemble piece, the choir, the string quartet and the coda."

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, 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, 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 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."

He notes that after his study of Jarrett and his band, "I would say I stopped what I would call the official student phase. I'm still a student today, but I would say the official student phase. I moved away from piano players being my inspiration and the orchestra composers became my influence as a pianist. More and more I found my strength in not thinking of myself as a pianist, but thinking of the midrange of the piano as the French horns. The upper register as the strings and flute. The lower register as the lower the low brass and basses. Or sometimes I thought of the ocean, or some stuff that might sound dumb to you. Anything but music, because there was a kind of pianist, especially around my time, that was a very intellectually gifted pianist (but) you could tell they were listening to piano players too much. It didn't touch me. I myself, if I was thinking about piano trios and what anybody else did, could not reach anything profound.

"But if I sat down and imagined that nobody's ever touched a piano before I'm about to play it now, and then I imagined the sensual impact or the imagery, then I could imagine an orchestra. Or a machine. Sometimes I'd be playing a rhythm and in my mind it was the synchronicity of a machine. Or an ocean. Something other than a piano and certainly something other than a pianist. I could soar in a way that just was me. From the mid-'80s on, there weren't any piano players that I would be influenced by. I would be more influenced by imagination and sounds in the world," including Indian music.

The source of the Indian influence did not come from music from that country. Instead, it came from Miles Davis—who also, at times, had his ear tilted toward those sounds.

"One of the most influential records for me was Miles Davis' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969). The thing about those Miles Davis bands is that you didn't pay attention to the soloists, though they were some of the greatest soloists in the world. A vibe came out. It was the whole and it would carry you. Nothing did that for me more than In a Silent Way. I'd put it on and go off into a tangerine dream. I would go into altered states of consciousness. I think I was looking for an alternate reality and looking for any vehicle for alternate reality; the good ones and some of the dead ends. That was very influential."

Those influences extend to all aspects of Werner's career. His piano trio work started in the early 1980s, (primarily with bassist Ratzo B. Harris and drummer Tom Rainey); his work with singers like Roseanna Vitro and Betty Buckley, and his work on fine recordings like 2007's Lawn Chair Society (Blue Note).

He continues to be a superb performer, having played with a long list of greats like Archie Shepp, Toots Thielemans, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Joe Henderson, Dave Douglas, Potter, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette and many more. His most recent creative piano trio sees him merging his sweet sound with Ari Hoenig on drums and Johannes Weidenmueller on bass.

Also this year, the French label Outnote recently released New York—Love Songs, a solo disk. "They wanted you to pick a city and write, or play, or both, odes to that city," says Werner. "I picked New York. It is my favorite city." Following his muse, the pieces weren't about the complexities of the piano.

"All the pieces that are impressive pianistically, I ended up not using. The pieces that put me into 'that space' is what I put on it," he explains. "It's the only record I ever made that you could sort of go into a hypnotic state by listening to it and not be disturbed by virtuosity for the entire record. I can listen to one of my records once. But this one could be on all day because it gathered my consciousness into one spot. It kind of did to me what In a Silent Way did. I'm excited about it from the standpoint of spiritual energy.

"In a way I think it was more meaningful than to do a variety of piano pieces. I guess I'm moving away from that. I don't think I was ever than much beguiled by the idea of virtuoso piano playing. I'm certainly moving more away from that now."

Wherever Werner is moving, plan on it being a place where emotion is prevalent and art can breed.

Selected Discography

Kenny Werner, With A Song In My Heart (Venus Records, 2008)

Kenny Werner, Lawn Chair Society (Blue Note Records, 2007)

Kenny Werner, Democracy: Live At The Blue Note (Half Note, 2006)

Toots Thielemans and Kenny Werner, Toots Thielemans and Kenny Werner, (Universal, 2002)

Kenny Werner, Beauty Secrets (RCA Victor, 2000)

Kenny Werner, Unprotected Music (Double-Time, 1998)

Kenny Werner, A Delicate Balance, (RCA, 1998)

Joe Lovano, Celebrating Sinatra (Blue Note, 1997)

Lee Konitz, Zounds, (Soul Note, 1993)

Betty Buckley, Children Will Listen, (Sterling Records, 1993)

Roseanne Vitro, Reaching for the Moon, (Chase, 1993)

Tom Harrell, Sail Away, (Contemporary, 1991)

Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Soft Lights and Hot Music, (Music Masters, 1988)

Photo Credits

Page 1: John Abbott

Page 2: Courtesy of

Page 3:
Denis Alix

Page 4: Hans Speekenbrink

Page 5: Richard Conde

Page 6: Cees van de Ven

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