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Kenny Werner

The Space

PIROUET PIT3106 [54:20]

 

 

The Space (Werner) [15:57]

Encore from Tokyo (Keith Jarrett) [03:39]

Fifth Movement (Werner) [06:06]

You Must Believe in Spring (Legrand) [07:38]

Taro (Jason Seizer) [05:03]

Kiyoko (Jason Seizer) [05:04]

If I Should Lose You (Rainger, Robin) [03;30]

Fall from Grace (Werner) [07:18]

Kenny Werner (piano)

Recorded Kyberg Studio, Oberhaching (Germany), May 11-12 2016

Pianist Kenny Werner (born in 1951) made his first recording as a leader in 1977: The Piano Music of Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, James P. Johnson – an interesting, if not especially remarkable, album which announced him as a pianist of considerable technical accomplishment, deeply rooted in the history of jazz, not just in the contemporary scene.

Since the late 1970s, this native New Yorker has won respect from many fellow musicians. That is evident if one considers some of his recorded appearances as a sideman, with, for example, Joe Lovano (e.g.Village Rhythm and Landmarks), Lee Konitz ( Zounds), Chris Potter (e.g. Concentric Circles), Archie Shepp (e.g. Soul Song and Down Home New York) and Charles Mingus (Something Like A Bird). Since his debut he has recorded more than 35 albums under his own name. These have, I believe, generally attracted less attention than they deserved. Some of the best have been trio recordings; some were made with a long-running trio which included bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Tom Rainey (Introducing the Trio and Gu-Ru); in recent years he has made a series of impressive trio recordings with another long-lasting trio including bassist Johann Weidenmuller and drummer Ari Hoenig (e.g. Form and Fantasy, Peace, Melody and Animal Crackers. He has also made outstanding one-off trio recordings with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (A Delicate Balance) and with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron (Unprotected Music).

In the same years, Werner also made a number of unaccompanied solo recordings. Some, such as Meditations (1992) were a little diffuse and only inconsistently successful. His 1994 recording issued on Concord as Maybeck Recital Hall Series, Volume 34 was a more complete success, with Werner achieving a persuasively personal synthesis of many strands of the jazz piano tradition, whether on such standards as ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’, or in interpretations of his own compositions, such as ‘Roberta Moon’ and ‘Guru’. Particularly striking is a version of Brubeck’s ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ which morphs into Coltrane’s ‘Naima’.

Although some of these – and other – albums were well reviewed, they haven’t, cumulatively, achieved for Werner the reputation he deserves as a master of jazz piano, expert and historically informed, imaginative and sensitive, a master improvisor.

“As an acoustic pianist in modern jazz, Werner has few peers, but not the proper acclaim. Perhaps this album will do it”. So wrote Michael G. Nastos, reviewing Werner’s Beauty Secrets on AllMusic in 2000. I share both Nastos’ judgement of the standing Werner merits and the hope that this album (The Space) might aid the wider recognition of Werner as the master he is. The Space, it seems to me, is one of very best solo jazz piano recordings of recent years. As it happens, a particular focus of my jazz listening in the last 18 months or so has been unaccompanied piano, from (relatively) early greats such as Earl Hines and the extraordinary Art Tatum through later pianists such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett (as well as ‘outliers’ such as Dave McKenna, Jessica Williams and Hal Galper), plus a newcomer such as Chris Donnelly . A number of hearings have persuaded me that The Space places Werner very much in the distinguished company of the very best jazz piano soloists.

Werner is the author of one of the most important books on improvisation to have been written by a practicing jazz man, his Effortless Mastery (1996). This CD, as Werner himself points out, derives its title from that book. In his booklet note to the CD Werner writes: “‘The Space’ is the most important title I’ve ever had for my music. It comes from a chapter in my book, Effortless Mastery. We do things from our conscious mind or we do them from the space. The conscious mind is small and fearful. From the space, we are in the moment, content with what is. From the space we make decisions without doubt, we celebrate mistakes […] in music, for decades I have received what comes to me from the space with joy and delicious gratitude […] This entire project was played from the space.”

The title track explores ‘space’ in an almost literal sense too, with lots of silence leaving ‘space’ around many of the notes Werner plays. Werner’s touch at the piano is generally tender, even delicate, without even the slightest hint of really percussive playing. Nor does Werner’s being “in the moment” lead him into the kind of ecstatic raptures which characterize many of Keith Jarrett’s solo recordings. There is a more obvious discipline, and even restraint, to Werner’s inventions. Despite his own words – as quoted above – Werner’s conscious mind isn’t, surely, inactive in this music; rather to quote the title of one of Werner’s earlier albums there is “a delicate balance” in play here. The results, on the title track especially, are extraordinarily beautiful. In my quotation from Werner’s booklet note, I made some small omissions. Let me now restore the last of those omissions, in its context: “This entire project was played from the space. Hopefully it puts you in the space of your own heart as you listen”. It did!

‘Encore from Tokyo’ is a livelier, less obviously ‘meditative’ piece, which articulates Werner’s affinity with Jarrett’s solo recordings, but also highlights a significant difference. Werner’s reading of Jarrett’s ‘Encore from Tokyo’ (which can be heard on Sun Bear Concerts, ECM) is far more concise and less rhapsodic than the original, and has a steadier rhythmic pulse, closer to ‘swing’. The result is almost playful – if the idea of ‘being in the space’ has something zen-like about it, we should remember that that there is much in the zen tradition which is playful. As R.H. Blyth observed (Oriental Humour, 1959): “ Zen has a vital connection with humour”.

‘Fifth Movement’, another original by Werner, is an emotionally complex and ambiguous work, several times promising a kind of positivity and even celebration, which is then checked; the result is both moving and beautiful. Where the two standards are concerned, ‘You Must Believe in Spring’ gets a rich treatment, dense and complex patterns largely obscuring the melody, until it emerges with refreshed clarity at the track’s close. The reading of ‘If I Should Lose You’ incorporates a number of changes of tempo, with many passages taken rather faster than is usually the case with this tune; Werner decorates the melody with some delightful single note runs.

Werner also tackles two tunes – ‘Toro’ and ‘Kiyoko’ by the German tenor saxist Jason Seizer, who is also a sound-engineer and a record producer – he has been artistic director of Pirouet since 2003. As sound-engineer here he has certainly produced a beautiful sound, both warm and clear, which complements Werner’s playing perfectly. I can’t, however, say that Seizer’s two compositions draw the very best from Werner – even if ‘Kiyoko’ enables the pianist to occupy ‘the space’ to pretty good effect. In ‘Toro’, however, while Werner produces some attractive patterns, he doesn’t discover much of real depth or weight in the music.

The album closes with a last original by Werner – ‘Fall from Grace’, a dark-coloured, yet crystalline piece, in which he conjures some gorgeous velvety textures from the piano (it would be interesting to know what specific instrument he was playing) in a piece which moves slowly and with a well-earned sense of its own significance, aptly rounding off an outstanding album which demands (and rewards) attentive listening.

While not full of superficial excitement or virtuosic display, The Space is a profound and substantial body of music-making. It needs ‘active’ listening, not mere passivity, and given it, reveals much beauty and sensitivity – even a kind of wisdom.

Glyn Pursglove

 


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