Before & After: Kenny Werner

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Pianist-composer Kenny Werner’s impact can be measured on a number of levels. As a theorist, his book Effortless Master-Liberating the Master Musician Within has had a lasting influence on a generation of musicians since it was first published in 1996. As a player with great skill and imagination, Werner has led his various trios since 1981, and recorded dozens of sessions as leader or sideman.  In recent years, he’s stepped up as a composer of larger works, receiving commissions from jazz and symphony orchestras in the U.S. and Europe. Werner’s ambitious 2010 recording No Beginning, No End, led to a recent Guggenheim Fellowship, and his latest release, Institute of Higher Learning (Half Note), documents his collaboration with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. Werner made time for this late-night listening session following his Kennedy Center performance with Toots Thielemans.

1. Erroll Garner

“Penthouse Serenade” (from Long Ago and Far Away, Columbia). Garner, piano; John Simmons, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums. Recorded in 1951.

Before: Erroll Garner? Wow, that block chord thing in the right hand could be Dave McKenna or Jaki Byard.  Usually that style is not my favorite, but this guy is playing with great rhythm and a great touch. When you play that way it’s easy to bang. But he’s not banging, he’s just playing strong. I admire that in the old cats. No matter how percussive they were, you never heard the bang of the hammer. They had such a natural motion. You’ll notice there’s not one false chord there. The accuracy is great. The second thing is the rhythm. He carried the rhythm throughout so beautifully. Whoever did that did it really well.

After: Of course. He invented that style. It’s virtuosic the way he plays those chords. How many pianists actually changed the sound of piano playing? Nobody played like that before him.

2. Abdullah Ibrahim

“The Wedding” (from Sotho Blue, Sunnyside). Ibrahim: grand piano; Belden Bullock: bass; George Gray: drums; Cleave Guyton: alto sax, flute; Keith Loftis: tenor sax; Andrae Murchison: trombone; Jason Marshall: baritone sax. Recorded in 2010.

Before: That’s beautiful. What a beautiful tone and soulful expression. The sound reminds me a bit of Dick Oatts. The writing is somewhere between church and gospel, very soulful. It’s very rare that jazz can be that straightforward with the honesty of those chords. You notice the saxophonist hasn’t broken into one fill? That’s impressive. The background is simple and very fundamental. I’m tempted to say it’s a spiritual. It’s an anthem of some kind. He’s still not playing any runs. It’s the patience to keep it so honest and straight. You don’t hear any thinking. It’s all feeling. Jazz musicians have so much knowledge, so much complexity. That’s gorgeous. Amen.

After: Oh my god. I love it. Those chords are triads. If you look at his history, a lot of his music uses that.  So he wrote this as a wedding march. Sometimes when you write for an occasion, it has more intention than just trying to write a tune. I can usually tell when someone has written something for the birth of their child. It’s usually the best, sweetest song they’ve ever written. After writing No Beginning, No End, which was totally a life story thing, it’s hard to go back to writing music that is motivated by music. I was somebody who always watched more movies than listened to records. If I had my head on straight in college, I would have gone for movie scoring. My biggest love is music that is motivated by a visual. The last 10 years, I’ve moved further away from the pre-set of what jazz is, into more and more who you are. With No Beginning, No End, it was raw history and emotion. That’s so much more powerful than music for music’s sake, or certainly music for art’s sake. Honestly, I’ve never been that affected by art. You see, I grew up in Long Island, we didn’t have any art. We read TV Guide, and for intellectual stimulation we read Reader’s Digest. That was my world. I played piano in a vacuum. This piece is spiritual. It’s got a choir feeling. And he is an example of someone who has always expressed himself. He doesn’t come out with virtuosity; he doesn’t come out of anyone. It’s like Sun Ra, it’s total motivation. They know the strength of their music is the honesty of who they are.  Some of us take a lifetime to get there. Because we’re thinking there’s something you’re supposed to do. You have to get your music and your experience in sync, and I had the greatest experience of that in my last record. That was beautiful. I want to hear the rest of it.

3. Ambrose Akinmusire

“Confessions To My Unborn Daughter” (from When The Heart Emerges Glistening, Blue Note). Akinmusire, trumpet; Walter Smith III (sax); Harrish Raghavan (bass); Gerald Clayton (piano); Justin Brown (drummer). Recorded in 2010.

Before: Brad Mehldau? Younger guy? There are a lot of great piano players now in that 20-40 year-old range. Kevin Hayes? It’s that easy touch. I’ve learned something from these young cats, starting with Brad, who was actually in my class when he was, like, 17. They have this precision without banging on the piano. Is it the piano player’s record? Robert Glasper? Nice trumpet player. Is that Alex Sipiagin? It’s very well played, modern. My thought is how many of these young guys are virtuosic in so many ways. You know, the 70s was about creativity. The 80s became this neoclassicist thing. The bad thing was that people got hung up on what is and what isn’t jazz. But the good thing is that musicians really trained themselves. When I began to dig it was in the mid 90s when I realized that musicians were better trained than we ever were, because we didn’t have that discipline. But they were becoming creative again. So from the mid 90s till now, I think there’s been a super level of musicians, and I’m not afraid to say that I’ve learned from them. Some of the piano players have a touch that’s devoid of slap. There’s no slap at all–the rhythm is pinpoint. It’s very impressive and it’s changed my playing because I like that. A lot of guys my age heard McCoy Tyner and had a more aggressive way of playing with less control over the rhythm. The young guys have total control over the rhythm without having to bang. Then Brad came out with some new harmonies and new space. If there’s one thing that all the guys did back in my day, they filled up all the space. So I don’t have a lot to say about the music on this record, but it reminds me of the virtuosity and creativity of some of these young guys. It doesn’t affect me as much as the guys who were older than me. I don’t know if there’s something missing, or if they learned from records. Or maybe it’s because I was young when I heard those guys.

After: Don’t know him. It’s wild and virtuosic and disciplined. The lines never gave into anything stock–pretty impressive.

4. Marx Brothers

Harpo and Chico Pianos (from Riding The Range, Hallmark Recordings). Marx Brothers, pianos. Recorded in 1940.

[immediately] Chico Marx? That was easy. I told you I didn’t really have much jazz growing up. So when people ask me my influences, I have to say Victor Borge, Jimmy Durante, Jose Iturbi and Chico Marx. I saw these guys in movies. I don’t know what else he could do, but what he did I call effortless mastery. He could make a cartoon out of his hands. I think that’s so important. In some ways it’s more important than the most sophisticated jazz there is, because it brings it all the way to the human element. I guess Harpo did the same thing with the harp. My hero, for a long time, was Jaki Byard, because I think Jaki had that. And he had a sense of humor about it. He knew that all the different styles of music were just human constructs, so he could fly through them. Everybody wants to think there are these divisions. If you were a giant like Godzilla and you’re walking through New York and you rip the roof off of Carnegie Hall and you hear people playing [imitates the sound of classical music]. Then you walk two steps down and you do the same with the Village Vanguard [imitates the sound of jazz], to somebody that large, the larger your awareness is, the less the divisions in music really exist. It’s just music. They may have different shapes. I’m talking about music that transcends style. Schooling is great, but after a while I think the same thing happened with Christianity. First, it was just guys trying to show you want it’s about. Next thing you know, it’s a bunch of dogma and rules. And that crept into the music, too. I’m really impressed with young guys who rise above that. The golden period in every age is before the definitions come.

Are we living in a golden period now?

We are when it comes to the level of musicians. But you don’t know when it’s happening. Musicians today are playing on an extremely high level of creativity and an extremely high level of technical issues. I don’t just mean fingers. I mean harmonic development, linear development, rhythmic development. It’s on the highest level it’s been consistently. Finally, the Four Horsemen – Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock – we all couldn’t conceive of anything beyond those guys for 40 years. They were pretty good. But finally, this group of people has moved beyond it. They found some harmonies. I know Herbie has been listening to some of this stuff, and absorbed it too. Finally, in some aspects, though not all, the music has moved on. So I guess that’s a golden period. But that’s a definition!

After: You talk about new things, but what has ever happened that’s any better than those two?

5. Sam Rivers

“Ellipsis” (from Fuchsia Swing Song, Blue Note). Rivers, tenor saxophone; Jaki Byard, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1964.

Before: That’s nice. The way they leave out that one bass note, it’s like a false stop. Is it Dewey Redman? Sonny? The saxophonist is so entertaining because it’s out and in at the same time, and it never gives in to the predictable. There’s a little Duke in that piano player. Swinging hard, totally animated. These are rhythm changes, and I’m not a big fan of these changes but they’re making it really interesting. I’ve got to tell you, you’re really educating me tonight. Now the piano player is absolutely killing. That comes out of Bud Powell. The pianist and the saxophonist are compadres. This affects me more than all the young cats, but that may just be my age. Boy, I really want to know who this is. Is it Jaki Byard? Yeah, it’s an amalgamation of all things and beyond, with humor. Wow, they did it again. Did you dig that? That’s a miracle. There’s nothing more controlled and creative than what Jaki just played against the drums. Well, this is a knock out. I like altered reality, but I like that it’s reality that is altered and this whole track is doing that, so it’s a lot more interesting than just going out. Man, that was fantastic.

After: Of course. I should have known that. It was so loose. That’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard of Sam Rivers. That’s the best of what jazz has to offer, to me. Reality bores me, and complete disruption of reality bores me. I like a reality that you can’t predict. That was so good. I’m going to get that. You’re cutting a wide swath here.

6. Vijay Iyer

“Duality” (from Tirtha, ACT). Iyer, piano; Prasana, guitar; Nitin Mitta, tabla. Recorded in 2008.

Is this Vijay Iyer? I think it’s 5 against 8. For the past 30 years, the primary focus of my study is rhythm. There’s always something more to explore there, as opposed to harmony, which is kind of finite because it’s a tempered scale. But rhythm never ends. Vijay has the whole idea of tala and teeha. I’ve heard Indian-Jazz fusions, and most of them seem sort of shallow. But Vijay has the credentials and the chops and the imagination that can bring them together. I’m guessing that here he’s giving himself complete harmonic freedom. That’s why there’s no bass playing. There’s a raga there, whether he’s staying in it or not, or how he’s interpreting it, I don’t know (sings it). That’s trailblazing. Guitar player’s not Rez Abassi, is it? I know Vijay but we’ve never had a talk about his music. There’s a natural fusion. If you’ve really been immersed in that music, you’re just gonna play. That’s what makes it uniquely his music. It’s not Indian music and jazz. There was tala, there was teeha and there was a raga. There are all the elements necessary in Indian music, and yet it was played improvisationally in a way that only western musicians can.

7. The Trio of Oz

“Angry Chair” (from The Trio of Oz, OZmosis). Rachel Z, piano; Omar Hakim, drums; Maeve Royce, bass. Recorded in 2010.

Before: Nice. I could say Aaron Parks, I could say Robert Glasper. I love that harmony. It’s got an insular effect, as if you’re inside something. Nice composition. Each thing you’re playing me is intensely good. Very smooth, spot on without any effort. And it’s spacious. He doesn’t get lost just playing lines. He comes back very quickly to ideas, which is nice. I could tell if you play something by someone from my generation because there wouldn’t be such restraint. It’s a really good rhythm section. Nice arrangement; Very creative and very playful.

After: That’s Rachel? I didn’t know she plays that great [laughs]. That was fantastic. Oh, I know Omar. I haven’t seen him in a dog’s age. Great tune. Is that a new record? You’re costing me money with all these records I’ve got to get. This defines for me what a great player and writer she is. There were a few things she built into the arrangement that increased the drama.

8. Fats Waller

“Everybody Loves My Baby” (from Ain’t Misbehavin’, ASV). Waller, piano, vocal; John Hamilton, trumpet; Gene Sedric, saxophone; Al Casey, guitar; Cedric Wallace, bass; Slick Jones, drums. Recorded in 1940.

Is that Fats Waller? He was funky. That’s the first funk I ever heard. That’s like Stevie Wonder, to me. There’s great syncopation in that. That is just swinging, man, dancing. He was one of the first and only guys I listened to until I got out of my house and started to check out other stuff. Incredible beat, simple music, very funny. Those guys were as proud of their ability to entertain as they were of their piano playing. It’s really happy and bouncing and really well played. I use to play his “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” as a kid. It was really pumping.

9. Eldar Djangirov

“In Walked Bud” (from Three Stories, Masterworks Jazz). Djangirov, piano. Recorded in 2009.

Wow. Ok, who has all those chops? That sweeping thing reminds me of Art Tatum, but it’s certainly not Tatum.  It’s not Jean-Michel Pilc, is it? This is really creative with beautiful rhythms. Boy.  The long runs are Tatumesque, though the runs are more staccato. Rhythmically, it was extremely modern with intelligent left hand movement. It’s organized – there’s nothing baloney about it. Sometimes he would play what you think is an out chord, but it’s not because he played it again. It was a calibrated out for the moment. It’s ultra impressive. If you had a checklist of things you wanted to hear in solo piano, each one would be A++.

After: I think I heard him when he was really young. Back then he was really impressive technically, but not so much musically. But now, wow.  The guy’s a virtuoso.

10. Muhal Richard Abrams

“SoundDance Part. 3” (from SoundDance, PI). Abrams, piano; George Lewis, trombone, laptop. Recorded in 2010.

Before: Is he American? Every one of these things I want to investigate.  This has great intention to it. You don’t get the feeling that each person is just giving their 2 cents. They’re joining together to create an environment. And it has a theme. It’s a distempered collection of sounds. There might be a synth in there, or maybe they’re getting different sounds out of the instruments. It’s not Uri Caine, is it? Is it a jazz player? Because it’s so well organized, his comping sets up a sort of ostinato, and then the long and not well tempered sounds create sort of a cloud above it. It’s a simple idea. But because they hold to the idea, it creates something more than just a collection of solos. I felt that same way about Kind of Blue. The vibe of the group superceded the solos.

After: That was very creative. Fantastic. And it’s a very fresh sound. And Muhal’s recurring figure against it – it’s nice that it has different textures but they both remain true to it. Very effective. I don’t know if it was written down, but I’m going to guess it was worked out. He wasn’t playing just any clusters. I’m getting less and less interested in the solo, and more interested in the illusion, or the vibe. The composer in me is taking over from the pianist.

Bonus video shot during this B&A: Kenny Werner talking about Bill Evans:

Recorded April 2, 2011 for JazzTimes. Photo and video by Larry Appelbaum.

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