Interview | Before arriving for D.C. gigs, Kenny Werner discusses his redemption song

Kenny Werner, whose music has helped him recover from loss, plays Friday and Saturday at Twins. | courtesy KennyWernerLive.com

by Giovanni Russonello
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Pianist Kenny Werner arrives in D.C. today for a pair of shows at Twins Jazz tonight and tomorrow night. He is riding high on what’s widely been hailed as his greatest creative achievement: the new album No Beginning, No End. It’s an orchestral suite featuring a 35-piece wind ensemble, plus Werner on piano, saxophonist Joe Lovano and singer Judi Silvano. And it’s breathtaking. Critics are raving about it; Werner calls it his “most powerful” work; and it even won the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship Award for Music Composition.

But the path to success was paved with bitter adversity. Werner’s daughter, Katheryn, was killed in a car accident in 2006, when she was 16. He and his wife, Lorraine, were too devastated to even get out of bed for days on end. By reconnecting with the elements of Eastern spirituality that had long guided their thinking, the Werners eventually began to climb out of their despair together. Then Kenny wrote a poem for his daughter called “No Beginning, No End” – a concept central to Buddhism. In turn, that sparked him to write the suite. Which he did frantically.

Fulfilling a commission that was due in just one month, Werner fleshed out the sentiments of the poem – love, grief, eternity, loss, togetherness – in a nearly 50-minute orchestral masterpiece. (To read the poem and Werner’s detailed, candid account of how the suite came about, click here. An extensive JazzTimes article on Werner, published Wednesday, is available here.)

At Twins this weekend, Werner will perform with a quartet that he’s very excited about. He told CapitalBop about that group, No Beginning, No End and more during our conversation on Thursday. Here’s what he had to say.

CapitalBop: Tell me about the musicians you’ll be playing with at Twins, saxophonist Benjamin Koppel, bassist Daniel Foose and drummer Ross Pederson. Have you worked with them before? What should the D.C. audience expect to hear?

Kenny Werner: I met Benjamin Koppel a few years ago in a project we put together with Phil Woods honoring [Danish legend] drummer Alex Riel, and we kind of took an interest in each other’s music…. This summer we were artists in residence at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, and we played with about five or six different groups over 10 days and just played a lot of different music, his and mine.

CB: What kind of stuff?

KW: Very free sometimes, it depended on the band. We had different bands with different styles: some of it was sort of contemporary, whatever that means; some of it was very free; some of it was kind of grooving.

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[Watch a video of Werner performing with drummer Ari Hoenig and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller:]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMB4YmHdD60&fs=1&hl=en_US] __________________________________

CB: So with the group you’ve got now, what should we expect?

KW: Well, Ross Pederson and Daniel Foose are two young guys who’ve come to New York, and they’ve been coming up to my house in the Catskills. So I started to use them on gigs to see what it feels like live, and it feels great. They really are so creative…. We’re playing mostly my music in D.C. And that’s a combination of some older tunes of mine and some new stuff. It’s hard to say what kind of music it is: Just my tunes, you know? Some music from different albums and some stuff that nobody’s ever heard.

CB: You’ve described the unbelievably beautiful album No Beginning, No End as “probably the most powerful music I’ve ever written.” Allmusic.com critic Thom Jurek called it your “master work.” What did you learn about yourself as a musician from it? How might your work composing and performing this piece affect other aspects of your artistry?

KW: Well, on a craft level, I’m still trying to learn different and interesting ways of orchestrating – for orchestra or wind ensemble or whatever. I’m not a great student, so I kind of learn by doing. But I had a chance to do that piece and then redo it, and that was very helpful because I could see the things that worked and didn’t work, and I strengthened the things that worked and I eliminated the things that didn’t work. [After Werner debuted the suite at a concert, he made changes before recording the album version.] The orchestration was more complete and polished than I usually have, because I had that rare opportunity to rewrite it, and I learned that when you have a strong emotional motivation for something, it’s a lot stronger music than when you’re just trying to write some great music. As great as great music can be, when there’s something that you’ve got to express – that’s even more important than the music itself – then the piece becomes much more compelling to other humans, you know? I definitely learned that.

And as far as my artistry, it kind of upped the ante for me, which is making it hard for me to write anything. [Laughs] It kind of put me on a new level of my own expectations. But the major thing I’m doing is recording all my big band music with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, and that stuff’s been written before. The new thing I’m to write is a piece featuring Benjamin and myself, a concerto for piano and saxophone.

And I’m just kind of listening more to things now before I just jump in and write it. I need to have a kind of clean break from No Beginning, No End, and just find another premise. Because it’s a whole different category for me; I was very involved with it for a long time…. I’m interested in seeing what my approach will be in the next thing that I produce.

CB: Can you tip your hand at all as to what we might be looking for in your next record?

KW: Well, I know what that’s going to be because we recorded it last year, live at the Blue Note. My quintet is [trumpeter] Randy Brecker, [saxophonist] David Sanchez, [drummer Antonio Sanchez] and it was actually John Patitucci [on bass]. Scott Colley is the regular bass player, but he couldn’t make it so John Patitucci played. And we recorded live. I think it’s going to be a very nice CD…. I actually haven’t listened to it because I’ve been totally involved in No Beginning, No End…. In November, I’m going to sit down with that and pick the best music and then we’re going to mix it in November, and it’ll come out next year.

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[Watch a video on the making of No Beginning, No End:]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxFYFvGGeyI&fs=1&hl=en_US] __________________________________

CB: In the JazzTimes piece that just came out, you mentioned that you wrote Joe Lovano’s solos on the new album in a way that kind of neutralized tempo. You said his solos “intersect with the composition. You don’t feel a tempo, you just feel like a wind is blowing. He lands where they land.” When you wrote the music like that, what spiritual roots were you drawing on, and what musical roots?

KW: I don’t think there was a spiritual root to that particular aspect of it. The sense of rhythm in my pieces is because ever since I started I’ve never been totally happy with the four- and eight-bar phrase, and the usual rhythms. I always thought it had something to do with being left-handed, but for some reason I always felt an odd number of bars and an odd feeling, and my trios have always featured some very unique rhythmic stuff, because that’s what I’ve been drawn to.

So when I wrote the piece – and sometimes you have to hold off when you write for orchestra, because they don’t necessarily have the reference to be able to play the rhythms you might write – but with this piece I really went for it. And what it does is it kind of disguises the sense of tempo and you just feel the movement of it, which just makes, to me, the listener have to listen to it, because they don’t really know exactly what it’s doing.

In terms of Lovano, what I meant was, sometimes he’s soloing, but most of the time he’s playing something I wrote for him. It sounds like he’s soloing because he’s playing so well. You might say, “Well then why bother to write it, why don’t you let him solo?” Because … it had to intersect with the harmony of the background at certain points. The way to get there was for him to be playing written music. So we managed to get a thing that feels like he’s just freely associating, and yet he’s landing with all of these people in all these improbable places. And you can’t possibly tell by listening, it’s just – you can feel the effect of it.

CB: Right, it’s almost a supernatural effect, like, “How did that possibly happen between a bunch of humans?”

KW: Exactly. You know, you sometimes are very complex, but it has to sound just [natural enough] so that it actually creates an effect. You don’t just have complexity for the sake of complexity. You have complexity because, unfortunately, it takes complexity to create this very simple illusion that you want everybody to be able to hear.

CB: Within the jazz idiom, there are plenty of predecessors in the orchestral realm. Some of the most obvious are the work of Miles Davis and Gil Evans, and Bob Brookmeyer. And then there’s classical, both Western and Eastern. Was there any other musician or musicians you can identify as having been an influence on how you made this music, or was it just sort of entirely organic?

KW: Over time, in general, Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer have had a big influence on me. I have to say that Thad Jones’s is my very favorite of all the big band music. I just plain love it, you know? And as [far as classical] composers, I would say I’m kind of influenced by the French guys – Ravel and Messiaen – for the harmonic stuff. And it might have influenced the music [in No Beginning, No End], it’s hard for me to say. I can’t really say because I haven’t really gotten that deep into anybody else to feel like I know that I’m coming out of that particular person.

I start playing with notes, you know? And they start to organize themselves into certain waves, and I wait and I just keep playing with them until they suggest something to me. And when it comes out, in a way it’s never what I started out doing. So I’m not really guiding it any way; therefore, I can’t say it’s influenced by anything. It’s more like a process, and I decide in the middle of the process, “What is this piece going to be?”

Kenny Werner will perform with a quartet at Twins Jazz tonight and tomorrow (Oct. 8 and 9). Find pricing, times, and other details about the shows here and here. Read about Twins Jazz here. Buy tickets at TwinsJazz.com.

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