The RJA recently caught up with Kenny Werner to ask about his approach to the music. Here’s some of what he had to say . . .
Redwood Jazz Alliance: You've played in so many different instrumental combinations over the years, but have consistently returned to the trio. What brings you back so often to the trio?
Kenny Werner: As a relationship, I’ve always looked for two guys that first of all play differently, secondly play ridiculously complex and virtuosic but can be profoundly simple, thirdly are very creative, and fourthly have a thing with each other so that if I just try to get with their thing I’m always learning something. This trio I have now, with Johannes Weidenmuller and Ari Hoenig, they had a whole bunch of things, a relationship, a metric, an understanding, that made me say, “whoa, what was that?” That’s when I know it’s a trio, when I don’t know what those guys are doing. All three of us have to be arrogant enough to take the reins ourselves and create, and get this triangular volleyball going. I’m into that Miles Davis aesthetic, you know, where you get into the middle of the music and it’s not about any one solo, it’s about that composite that’s happening. The music is just going by and you’re not even conscious of anyone soloing.
RJA: What draws you to improvised music?
Werner: I was seven years old when a neighbor down the block had a birthday party and his father sat down and played piano. I’d never seen it played live. I was mesmerized. I went home and said I wanted to play. From the first time I sat at a piano I started improvising songs I knew. You know, people are either weighted on the side of creativity, and have a little trouble getting structure or people start with structure and then can’t make the leap to creativity. I was the former. It came easy to me to make it up. I had scant patience for reading every note, but I’d ask my teacher to play something, and then I could just sit down and play it and make up my own parts. Later, when I was a concert piano player at the Manhattan School of Music, I realized it was all horribly wrong (laughs), and I left and went to the Berklee School of Music, not because I loved jazz, but because they improvised there. I’m an improvisor, almost to a fault. The language for me, just as we don’t think of English as the language we’re speaking now, is something I don’t think about. The language of jazz just flows easily for me, as English does to the tongue.
RJA: You've played with some of the true greats in jazz history, from Charles Mingus to Joe Lovano. To what extent does the jazz tradition inform your work?
Werner: It’s very inundated with it, which was unintentional because I came to jazz very late. I was at one time an improvisor who believed in no form of music, no style. I didn’t really like to imitate style. I thought what if we could make our consciousnesses large enough so we could minimalize the differences between our musics. I wanted to flow seamlessly through styles and influences. But when I got to Berklee and started to learn about voicings and changes, that stayed with me, too. And all my friends were jazz musicians, and so the imprint of being a jazz musician was just there for me from those years. And now, I try to get away from it sometimes, or at least play without the presumption that it’s going to be part of what I’m playing and then it just comes out naturally, so it’s the language of jazz but in a less intentional way. I learned lessons from all those people I played with, as people; how Lovano approached the joy of performing, how Mingus absolutely controlled the environment, how Archie Shepp ambled out onto the stage and was oblivious to the circumstances and just go into his thing. I learned a lot, but I learned more in terms of human issues.
RJA: You’ve often described yourself as a seeker. What role does your spiritual life play in the music you make?
Werner: The first time I heard Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way,” it really grabbed me. That’s one of those records where you can’t really tell if anybody’s really soloing, but you feel the aura of the whole music. I sat down and felt my consciousness start to transform into a deeper, more focused place. I’ve got one of those hyperactive minds that really appreciates when something revs it, and focuses it, and takes it to some deeper place. That is the language of Eastern philosophy and religion, too, so from the very beginning the purpose of the music for me was a spiritual one. I started to follow all the guys, Miles, and Ornette, and Herbie and Chick, and it was a very philosophical period. You know, Herbie was a Buddhist, Dave Holland is a Sufi. If music was all we needed, then why would somebody like Herbie, who’d achieved everything, need something else? Why would Herbie need Buddha? I mean, he plays his ass off. Obviously, for a lot of people, and for me, music was not enough in itself. The promised land is not to be some sort of killer player. There are a lot of killer players still lacking and desiring of something else. When you have a purpose that goes beyond playing – being a great player is a mundane goal – when you have a yearning that goes beyond that, then the music becomes a tool for spending some time in that heightened state of consciousness. I got sucked into jazz because the people who were making it when I was coming up were very much philosophers, and their thoughts, and their conceptions, were outside of the box. I pursued it more because it had that sort of mysticism to it than because it was jazz.
RJA: When you say “out of the box,” and talk about mysticism, you’re talking about jazz in the 1960s and 1970s, but things were different in the 1980s, with the rise of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz At Lincoln Center . . .
Werner: When the music got all anthropological and sociological, and politicized with all that stuff about what is jazz and what isn’t jazz in the 1980s, I felt very alienated. I don’t care what is jazz. I don’t care about that stuff. What I love is the mystical search, which jazz served best. I was seeing these young guys -- I was teaching a lot -- and they were so traditional. If you don’t believe the music’s there to be rearranged than your whole thing is just to play it the way someone else played it. I like what Bill Evans used to say. He said the tunes are “vehicles” for his improvisation. I felt the music was gone in the ‘80s, but in the ‘90s I felt what we were seeking before was validated. What happened was you saw guys who were as trained as they could possibly be. Now it’s absolutely standard that a guy can play in any avant-garde way and also swing his butt off. What happened was the schools, the styles, that everyone envisioned as different began to be seen as all one thing. I then saw the wisdom of both things, of the Jimmy Carter period of jazz and the Ronald Reagan period of jazz. The ethereal, kinder, more soulful, sweater-by-the-fire-place thing, that was the era I came up in, and then the two guys who got elected, Wynton Marsalis and Ronald Reagan (you know, they dressed the same), came along. Ronald Reagan was back to World War II and Wynton Marsalis was back to Fifty-Second Street. And that’s fine. I hated it at the time, but what it led to is a super-race of players who are trained to the highest degree, who are equipped to the highest degree, but are also ushering in all the creativity again. Sometimes you have to live long enough to see it all make sense. I feel like we took a technology break and learned how to play the music better, but I do believe that stuff I felt thirty years ago, about reaching outside ourselves, is manifesting now more than ever.
RJA: Your latest recording is entitled "Democracy," with a track dedicated to Amy Goodman and “Democracy Now.” Do you view your music as politically motivated? How so?
Werner: That’s part of my thing. I like a wide palette, that’s more possible today than ever before, I think. I came to jazz too late to be imprisoned by it, and it’s the same thing emotionally. My music ranges from things that are trippy to things that are meant to get absolutely down to the bottom of my soul, and then other times I’m very irate, especially these days, politically. And I try to let it all come through. My first recording live at the Blue Note is called “Peace,” the old Horace Silver tune. There’s nothing radical about that except that it was made after the Iraq war began, and I announce wherever I go that we’re going to play “Peace,” and we’re going to keep playing it until, you know, we learn to have it. And people say, “Why did you name your record ‘Democracy’?” And I say, “Well, we might as well have democracy somewhere, even if it’s just on a CD.” You know, it’s great, there are all these different levels to what you’re about. And if you’re not limiting yourself, one day you’re going to write something that is political and one day you’re going to write something that’s transcendental, and one day you’re going to write something that’s totally sensual, and another day you’re going to write something that’s totally religious, and it’s just kind of like that…