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
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