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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.


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