INTERVIEW: Kenny Werner

Kenny Werner (artist website)


US pianist Kenny Werner talked in this interview about improvising, about his work with Joe Lovano and Benjamin Koppel, his influential 1996 book "Effortless Mastery", and his philosophy of practising and performing. Alison Bentley was speaking to him after his duo gig with Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel at the Inntoene Jazz festival in May 2015.

London Jazz News: What first brought you together with Benjamin Koppel?

Kenny Werner: He contacted me to play at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. Then he gave me one of his CDs, and I was interested in the thoughtful way he was improvising, and the way his father [musician and composer Anders Koppel] was improvising. All I did was contact him about that and I started to come over [to Denmark] and play gigs with him; eventually I introduced him to the American audience and brought him a few times. That’s how it started, but we found that it was very easy to play as a duo and go a lot of places.

LJN: I have always thought of you in the American tradition- I don’t know if that’s right- your work with Joe Lovano and your solo work. Were there some qualities in Benjamin Koppel’s playing that changed the way you played?

KW:  Well, he’s got big ears! And his Classical influence. I’m not a Classical player, but I have a big Classical influence, just from hearing it. And that really serves well when I’m playing with Benjamin, ‘cause we can go with that kind of thing any time. But mostly what makes any partner good is the responsiveness. And Benjamin is immediately and completely responsive to whatever you throw out, as I try to be with him. But I don’t break it down American/ European- my thing’s more American because I’m American. I would sound different with whoever you hear me with because I’m not just playing- I’m reacting to that person. So Joe Lovano elicits a completely different thing out of me than Benjamin would, as does my trio, as does Toots Thielemans when I play with him. So I don’t really have a style. In my mind it’s not styles, it’s textures. Joe has a certain texture in his rhythm that changes my rhythm.

LJN: Your playing tonight seemed to create pastoral images…

KW:  I try to get lost in the sound and then I let the sound take over, and then things channel. Sometimes I have specific images; sometimes I just have feelings; sometimes it’s just getting high on the sound that’s happening, and letting that carry me. I like to feel that something is playing through me, not from me.

LJN: It’s nearly 20 years since you wrote Effortless Mastery. Do you feel that your ideas have changed in any way since then?

KW:  It’s funny, because I had written the book after several years of teaching and speaking in real time, so the book was not the beginning of a journey- it was sort of and end. And of course I’ve added a few things to it, but essentially it’s the same idea. Letting music come through me means… there’s practising and there’s playing. Practising is time to focus on what I can’t do technically. Practising is dry. When I play, put my hands on a piano, and I try to receive with love whatever they play. That’s not a time to judge them. Maybe I’m doing it better today than I was 20 years. The philosophy remains the same, ‘cause that philosophy’s served me so well, that I realise that for me I’m in the right place. It might not be good for someone else that likes to plan their life differently, but it’s the right philosophy for me.

LJN: Do you think you would have benefited from the simple finger exercises [recommended in ‘Effortless Mastery’] without first working on the Classical discipline that was boring for you?

KW: In fact, I didn’t do that much Classical work- I kept avoiding it, to tell you the truth. This is not an exercise for the fingers; it’s an exercise for the mind. It’s about dropping your fingers [on the keys] and not forcing them to do things, and just watching. And what happens is, if you read my story in the book, when I played after six days of nothing but dropping my fingers I went to play and they just took over. I had empowered them to play. It was the first time ever that I was not making music- I was just watching my hands play music, and they were playing better than I have ever played. That was what you call a religious experience. It was from that day in 1973 that I took this philosophy and I’ve never changed. Six days of any kind of practising would not have changed my playing as much as six days of this just dropping my fingers.

It seems like there’s an ego element of needing to sound good that gets in the way of the greatest, the more profound stuff. I found that out that day and even the guy I was playing with, he was going, ‘Oh, man, I can’t believe what you’re playing!’ And I’m looking at him, saying, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe it either- it wasn’t me!’ So I had a spiritual conversion that minute. And since then, I judge my music more not by how it sounds but- how much did I let go? Usually they equal the same thing. I let go and that was an inspired concert. Sometimes I let go and it wasn’t a good concert but I’m not going to be concerned with that. To me, music is profound when I let go and I feel it coming through, and it feels self-conscious when I’m trying to force it.

LJN: There was one piece tonight when you were playing quite simple chords very slowly, then it built very strongly. There was a standing ovation- people had been really drawn in and you responded. Were you conscious of doing that or did it just happen?

KW: Well it just sort of happened- sometimes the piano is a factor. I hate to sound like a Zen guy but when I sit down at that piano I have to find out what it’s going to give me. ‘Cause I’m not going to make it do anything. And this particular piano chose to do that, and it had a very dramatic effect. I don’t think we played better than anybody else. I think there’s a lot of people that play better than us. The question is- what are people really looking for when they go to a jazz concert? Are they looking for jazz, or are they looking to find their own true identity in their heart?

And I myself am more interested in the essence of- what am I? What am I doing? I can’t answer that but I’m more interested in that whole world than I am jazz. So I said, ‘Why am I trying to uphold jazz which is not even what I most care about?’ I care about this energy inside me that takes over and completes me. So maybe because that’s what I’m going for, the audience responds more than they would to even a greater jazz concert. I think behind jazz, behind all art is the human being’s urge to know the true self. And art very often is a way to get there. But I don’t think the art itself is the end. I always like to say that for me art is not a message- it’s a messenger. Art is always stronger when it describes something greater than itself. I didn’t grow up in a very artistic environment, so if I think- this is Art, I lose interest! But if I think, I’m getting myself off, and feeling intoxicated from this…for me it’s like a sexual experience. It’s like a spiritual experience- it’s not an artistic experience. As soon as I think to myself, ‘I’m playing jazz,’ I lose all my inspiration.

That may be what I’m doing but I can’t think that way. It’s just the raw sound of my consciousness, and it can make me turned on, and then I’m inspired, or I’m angry- in other words, it makes me real, and I suddenly feel my life. That’s what the music is for me. I don’t care what kind of jazz it is. And that’s why arguments about what jazz is really could not interest me less. This world’s got a lot deeper problems than that! But I found out that when I just do the complete act of selfish, surrender to the sound and let myself get high- when I open my eyes the audience has been given a gift. So for me an artist has to be supremely selfish in order to get himself to the point where he lights up the rest of the audience- that’s the way it’s worked for me.

Thelonious Monk could make a mistake and then people made that the next thing in his art. But what was the secret? Was that mistake only good ‘cause Thelonious Monk made it? Or was it the fact that Thelonious Monk loved that as soon as he played it? And then everybody went, ‘Wait a minute- I thought that was a mistake- look at him! That must be the hippest thing I’ve ever heard!’ I think we’re attracted to that consciousness more than the music itself. And anyway, that’s all I’m interested in.

LJN: And you have a new CD out*?

KW: Yes, my trio’s been together for fifteen years. It’s the first one we’ve done in eight years, and I think it’s one of the most mature, that’s why I called it ‘The Melody’, and I really hope people enjoy it.

* (Pirouet Records PIT3083, release date July 7, 2015, with Johannes Weidenmueller, bass; Ari Hoenig, drums)

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