KENNY WERNER was born November 19, 1951, in Brooklyn, and his introduction to music and performing came at the age of four when he joined a children’s song and dance group. At the age of eleven, he recorded a single with a fifteen-piece orchestra and appeared on television playing stride piano. His love of the classics was nurtured when, while still in high school, he attended the Manhattan School of Music, where he became a concert piano major upon completion of his high school studies.
Werner’s emotional need to improvise began to take him out of the classical world, and into the world of jazz. So, in 1970, he transferred to the Berklee School of Music. There he began to find his creative direction. In Boston he met his piano teacher and spiritual guide, Madame Chaloff. “She was the first person I met who pulled together spiritual and musical aspects,” recalls Werner. She ignited in him a concept that was furthered by his next teacher, Juao Assis Brasil, a concert pianist who successfully demonstrated to Werner effortless piano playing with a self-loving attitude. Werner met Mr. Brasil while touring South America with Juao’s twin brother, Victor Assis Brasil. This ideology blossomed in Werner and constitutes his approach to music and creativity today.
In 1977, Werner recorded an LP that featured piano solos of the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson and George Gershwin. Soon thereafter, Werner found himself recording with the great Charles Mingus on Something Like a Bird. In 1981, Werner recorded his own solo album of original compositions entitled Beyond the Forest of Mirkwood. The following year, Werner recorded the sounds heard coming from his Brooklyn-based studio, a hotbed of late-night jam sessions, and titled the record after his address, 298 Bridge Street.
In the early ’80s Kenny Werner toured extensively with Archie Shepp. In 1984 he joined the Mel Lewis Orchestra. His appearances also included solo concerts in Europe and New York City and duos with such notables as Rufus Reid, Ray Drummond and Jaki Byard. Werner received performance grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in both 1985 and 1987, allowing him the unique opportunity to present his own music in a concert hall setting at Symphony Space in New York. He was also commissioned to compose and conduct a memorial piece for Duke Ellington at St. John of the Divine Church in New York. The Manhattan School of Music’s Stage Band and the New York City Choir performed the work. Werner has also written compositions for the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, now known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
In 1981, he began to play with bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Tom Rainey. They weren’t to make their first CD until 1988 for Sunnyside records entitled, Ken Werner, Introducing The Trio. He would do another trio album for Sunnyside and a beautiful quintet album featuring Randy Brecker, Joe Lovano, and Eddie Gomez entitled Uncovered Heart. The trio with Harris and Rainey was an association that would last 14 years. The band agreed to terminate, for the moment, in 1995. This trio was acknowledged by those in the know as one of the most daring and innovative trios to ever play together. Peter Watrous of The New York Times, upon hearing the trio, called their rhythm “near miraculous.” Bob Blumenthal of the Boston Globe, a long time supporter of the trio said, “it [the Kenny Werner Trio] has provided an ever-evolving definition of the spontaneity that remains at the heart of jazz…unsurpassed as a working trio”. Werner feels that much of his musical development, conceptually and rhythmically, was directly due to the experience of playing with these two innovators.
In the fall of 1987 Kenny Werner joined the faculty of the New School’s jazz department in New York City, where he taught jazz harmony and theory for six years. He has given clinics at many universities in the United States and abroad, and teaches privately as well. Out of his teaching experience Werner had published articles in music and health magazines. It was the beginning of good things to come for him as an educator. Currently, he is the artist-in-residence at New York University and the artistic director for the Banff Center Jazz Program for 1999-2000.
In over a quarter century of performing, Werner has played with such jazz greats as Bob Brookmeyer, Ron Carter, Joe Williams, Chico Freeman, Sonny Fortune, Peter Erskine, John Abercrombie, Jackie Paris, Bobby McFerrin, Lee Konitz, Billy Hart, Marian McPartland, Joe Henderson, Tom Harrell, Gunther Schuller, Ed Blackwell, Paul Motian, John Scofield, Jack DeJohnette, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden and Toots Thielemans. He continues to share a long and creative relationship with good friend Joe Lovano, and can be heard on several of Lovano’s albums.
The nineties had found Werner still actively leading his own trio until the breakup in ’95 and performing in the groups of Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell and Toots Thielemans, making numerous appearances in Europe, and writing big band charts for groups such as the Cologne Radio Jazz Orchestra (WDR), the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra and the Umo Jazz Orchestra (Finland). He has also served as pianist, arranger and musical director for the noted film, television and Broadway star, Betty Buckley.
In 1993 he was awarded another grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to present a concert in tribute to Mel Lewis, featuring some of Werner’s original compositions. That same year he also won the Distinguished Artist Award for Composition from the New Jersey Council of the Arts for a piece entitled “Kandinsky” from his CD Paintings. And, in 1995, recognizing a talent in composition that rivals Werner’s phenomenal talents as a pianist, the NEA awarded Werner yet another grant, this one for the purpose of composing a piano concerto dedicated to Duke Ellington, performed in February 1996 by the Cologne Radio Orchestra. The early ’90s also found Werner making his first appearance on the Concord Jazz label with his Maybeck Recital Hall Series, Vol. 34 solo piano recording. Released in September 1994, the recording was met with much-deserved accolades from the jazz press. UPI jazz critic Ken Frankling listed the album as one of the Top 10 Jazz Recordings of 1994. “Werner’s set,” wrote JazzTimes critic Fred Bouchard, “is one of the very best in a series that has quietly become the pianists’ yard stick of our era.”
His second Maybeck Hall CD, a duet with Chris Potter (Concord Duo Series Vol. 10), was chosen as the best album of 1996 by George Kanzler, jazz critic for the New Jersey Star Ledger. His last recording for Concord was to be the last recording of his trio with Harris and Rainey, Live At Visiones. What is significant is that this is their first live recording after all those years. Now it’s possible for listeners to sample the intensity that happened regularly when they played gigs. Werner felt it was essential to record their versions of these standards, “to document the evolution of the tunes we have played over our 15-year history to date.”
In 1997, Werner began recording for BMG/RCA with a new trio featuring bassist Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette entitled A Delicate Balance. In 1999 he released Beauty Secrets, also for BMG/RCA with another trio, featuring a longtime collaboration with Billy Hart and newer-friend, Drew Gress. The CD Beauty Secrets features different groups and sounds that make up Werner’s world, including duets with as diverse forces as Joe Lovano and Betty Buckley. Perhaps no tune on the album exemplifies Werner’s renegade spirit and independent thought as his duet with Betty Buckley on Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns”. Another notable event on this album is one composition featuring a quintet of (at the time of this writing) younger spirits. The rhythm section of Ari Hoenig on drums and Johannes Weidenmueller on bass constitute what would become his next trio.
After a few years of experimenting with various combinations, he has settled on these two young and fiercely talented players (Ari Hoenig on drums and Johannes Weidenmueller on bass) for his current trio. “This is the first time since Ratzo and Tom that I feel I am featuring a unique relationship, not just a trio”. In November 2000, he recorded his first CD with them, a live date from The Sunset Cafe in Paris. “I’ve made a decision never to record a trio in the studio again. It just doesn’t tell the story of the kind of great things that happen spontaneously on the bandstand when we have the resonance of people listening and watching.”
Another important artistic collaboration for Kenny was playing with Andy Statman. For those who don’t know Andy, he is one of the pioneers of Klezmer music in America. He has recorded a CD with Kenny called Between Heaven and Earth: The Music Of the Jewish Mystics. Of Andy, Werner says, “Andy’s music is all about light and consciousness and that is the goal that draws and captures my heart.”
To that end, in January of 1997, his book, Effortless Mastery was published and is quickly causing ripples in the music world, changing many musicians’ conceptions about how to practice, play, and listen. It is also causing those who have read the book or heard his clinics to grow spiritually and accept the true purpose of musicianship. Werner says, “I am getting responses from people almost daily about the effect the book is having on them, and I am a bit humbled by these responses. It not only challenges those musicians to change, it challenges me to be a worthy vessel for this message.”
Of the future, he says, “I want to continue to lose myself more and more in the bliss of music. Not only do I benefit from the intoxication, but the audience resonates with their own bliss. In this way, the music wakes us all to who we really are.” In the new millennium, perhaps it is time for musicians to abandon their limited concepts of what music is and who they are. Historically, we have been at the forefront of cultural and spiritual revolutions. It is time for us to drop our petty concerns of what is and isn’t jazz and allow the music’s original purpose to manifest: Music can express the inexpressible. It can expand us all in light and love, and continues to be God’s most potent tool of inducing ecstasy, which is our birthright.