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Arts & Culture

Kenny Werner On Piano Jazz

Kenny Werner.
Kenny Werner.

Pianist, composer and author Kenny Werner is known for his 1996 book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within,which has become a university textbook for improvising musicians and other artists. His album of original compositions, No Beginning No End -- a meditation on loss, death and renewal — was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010. On this episode of Piano Jazz, originally broadcast in 2007, Werner joins host Marian McPartland for a set of tunes by Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Steve Swallow and more.

"I like Kenny's touch. It's very delicate," McPartland says. "That first Steve Swallow tune, 'Falling Grace,' is so pretty, and nobody ever plays it much. I was glad to hear it. And playing 'In a Sentimental Mood' and 'Waltz for Debbie' together was a lot of fun. I thought those tunes came off quite well."

Werner was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was something of a child prodigy and had the ability to imitate the styles of famous pianists of the day. Before he was a teenager, Werner had recorded a single and had performed on several local television programs. After high school, Werner attended the Manhattan School of Music and began working toward a classical performance degree. His interest in improvisation eventually won out, which led him to the freer atmosphere of the Berklee College of Music.

While at Berklee, Werner studied with pianist Madame Chaloff, a Boston institution and mentor to players such as Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Werner credits Chaloff with influencing both his piano playing and his thoughts on musical and creative expression. Werner left Boston for Brazil with a Berklee buddy, Victor Assis Brasil, brother of classical pianist Joao Assis Brasil. Time spent with Joao led Werner to more discoveries about expression and a deeper understanding of his own creative path.

Upon his return to New York, Werner braved gigs at weddings and bar mitzvahs while trying to break into the jazz scene. His earliest high-profile gigs included session recordings with Charles Mingus and later Archie Shepp, with whom he toured in the early '80s. Werner also put together his own trio in 1981 with drummer Tom Rainey and bassist Ratzo Harris. The group would spend the next 14 years honing its sound and picking up critical accolades along the way.

Werner's frequent and diverse collaborations have included sessions with the Mel Lewis Orchestra, Jaki Byard, Ron Carter, Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, Bobby McFerrin, Lee Konitz and John Scofield. Werner has maintained a special musical relationship with harmonica genius Toots Thielemans, and has also served as arranger and pianist for Broadway singer Betty Buckley since 1989.

Werner's masterpiece, No Beginning No End, is a memorial to his daughter, Katherine, who died in an auto accident in 2006. A five-piece suite for a 37-piece chamber ensemble featuring tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and singer Judi Silvano, the album explores the entire range of emotions in losing a loved one — from loss, grief and devastation to hope, peace and renewal. The album was widely praised for presenting a complete musical response to one of the most profound personal tragedies imaginable. Werner received a Guggenheim fellowship for the album in 2010.

Kenny Werner's latest album is Collaboration, with Hans Van Oosterhout and Hein van de Geyn.

Originally recorded on Feb. 8, 2007.

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