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Kenny Werner: Coalition

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Kenny Werner suggests that Coalition be the name of this bass-less quintet as well as the title of their debut, and the often-roiling alliance of cultures at play here fortifies the moniker on both counts. In the liner notes, he says he built the group around Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke and Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón-the musicians “I most wanted to learn from.” Ample leeway is given to both. Zenón’s antic, funky “Phonetics #2 (Folk Dance)” leads off, with handclaps surging into one of the saxophonist’s patented slippery-quick rhythmic excursions. Loueke’s “Flying” is more than twice the length of his duet rendition with Esperanza Spalding on his 2010 record Mwaliko, largely due to the guitarist making like Ladysmith Black Mambazo with his multitracked vocals before a succession of audacious jazz-rock solos, highlighted by Zenón and then Werner on electric piano.

Werner’s leadership is subtly exerted. The other four compositions are his and, as fans might expect, include a ballad to swoon for (“Swan Song”) and a sophisticated but zesty Afro-Latin vehicle (“Tune 4”). Werner anchors the former with a lengthy, barely accompanied rumination on acoustic piano. On the latter, he fills the seams while Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel quotes “St. Thomas” during his mezzo-soprano solo and Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth roams his kit with glee.

Coalition provides the latest evidence that there is no typical Kenny Werner project. The pianist-composer-improviser keeps veering forward in directions that challenge his listeners and himself. The consistent quality of his outings rewards remaining hot on his trail.

Originally Published