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Kenny Werner Takes the Before & After Challenge

The pianist/composer opines on Viyay Iyer, Sam Rivers and...the Marx Brothers

Kenny Werner
Kenny Werner

Pianist-composer Kenny Werner’s impact can be measured on a number of levels. As a theorist and teacher, his book/CD package Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within (Jamey Aebersold) has had a lasting influence on a generation of musicians since it was first published in 1996. As a player of great skill and imagination, Werner, 61, has led his various trios since 1981 and recorded dozens of sessions as a leader or sideman. In recent years he’s stepped up as a composer of larger-scaled works, receiving commissions from jazz and symphony orchestras in the U.S. and Europe. Werner’s ambitious 2010 recording, No Beginning, No End (Half Note), earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his 2011 disc Institute of Higher Learning (also Half Note) documents his collaboration with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. Other recent albums, like the quintet offering Balloons and last year’s Me, Myself & I (Justin Time), an intimate solo piano effort, showcase additional facets of Werner’s talent. He made time for this late-night listening session following his Kennedy Center performance with Toots Thielemans in the spring of 2011.

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 & Ekaya

“The Wedding” (from Sotho Blue, Sunnyside). Ibrahim, grand piano; Andrae Murchison, trombone; Keith Loftis, tenor saxophone; Cleave Guyton, alto saxophone, flute; Jason Marshall, baritone saxophone; Belden Bullock, bass; George Gray, drums. 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 preset of what jazz is, into more and more of 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.

3. Ambrose Akinmusire

“Confessions to My Unborn Daughter” (from When the Heart Emerges Glistening, Blue Note). Akinmusire, trumpet; Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone; Gerald Clayton, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Justin Brown, drums. 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 Hays? It’s that easy touch. [Ed. note: Mehldau is 42; Hays is 44.] 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 were 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. The Marx Brothers

“Harpo and Chico Pianos” (from Riding the Range, Hallmark). Harpo and Chico Marx, pianos. Recorded in 1940.

BEFORE: [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, José 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. [Say] 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. … 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 what 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 at 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 [the Marx Brothers]?

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 [Rollins]? 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 knockout. 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.

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