I've been fortunate enough to play with with the great pianist Kenny Werner several times, and have spent quite a bit of time with him over the years, hanging, talking, discussing life the universe and everything. The last time we played together on a short duo tour, I took advantage of that to talk to him about many aspects of his music, his musical history and his attitudes towards many facets of music making. The one thing we didn't talk about was his seminal book 'Effortless Mastery', because great though it is, I think Kenny's been interviewed on the subject innumerable times, and I also feel that sometimes Kenny's importance as a contemporary jazz pianist is overlooked due to the focus on his book. So here we talk about music, and during the interview Kenny is fascinating and forthright about a wide range of subjects including how he got into the music, his own trios, his approach to composition and his views on the current generation of jazz musicians.
RG: As well as being a great pianist and musician with a huge history in the music, you’re obviously very well known for the ‘Effortless Mastery’ book, and I’m sure you’ve talked a lot about that, so what I’d like to do is to talk to you about music.
KW: Yeah, I appreciate it!
RG: So, I know from speaking to you many times and hearing you speak, that you tell the story of being in Long Island and discovering music from TV and things like that. But when I hear you playing, and indeed when anyone hears you playing, I can hear this very big and obvious understanding of jazz vocabulary, because there are so many allusions to that language etc. in your playing.
RG: So obviously at some point – and I know you’ve talked about this in relation to going to Berklee – at some stage, was there a point where this information came in to you in the way that other people talk about it. Like for example somebody says ‘this is II-V-I’ or this is this, and that’s that etc.
KW: Yeah, I didn’t ever think about II-V-I, though I may have played tunes that had II-V-I in them. It’s not that I didn’t play any jazz, it was just that I played my own by-ear jazz. The first jazz record I had was Peter Nero doing the soundtrack from ‘My Fair Lady’ (laughs). And I listened to that a lot, but as I said at the concert tonight, the guy I listened to the most, only because my father loved him, was Roger Williams. I’m not sure if you know who that is, he was like a Liberace with taste.
RG: ‘On The Street Where You Live’
RG: My father had a Roger Williams album
KW: Well my father had several, and I listened to him a lot. He used to be a fighter.
KW: Yes, so he actually had a two-handed technique – when you heard those lines he actually played them with two hands, but he played them very accurately, almost like a vibes player. But my father also loved Fats Waller, so we had several Fats Waller records, and that’s where I first heard ‘bluesy’ playing and of course that’s where got my first experiences of stride piano and that’s why I have some bastardised form of it now.
You know you just pick it up – I can’t really say where it comes from. I know there are things that come out in my playing of all kinds, not just jazz, because it’s just in the ether so to speak, and somehow I heard them through some kind of osmosis rather than focusing on them. And so I noticed that stuff coming out all the time.
Don’t forget there was bluesy stuff in movies too, and there was jazzy stuff in movies, so I can’t pinpoint any time when I intentionally absorbed the language. I didn’t hear the term II-V-I until I went to Berklee.
RG: And when you went to Berklee - because Berklee are credited with almost inventing a lot of that kind of language - so was that the case when you went there – were there classes in traditional jazz harmony etc.?
KW: Well before that I was at Manhattan School of Music as a concert piano major, but I was mostly interested in theory. But studying theory classically, it took three semesters just to get to the Neopolitan 7th, which is something I was playing when I was 7 years old! I mean who gives a fuck what it’s called!? So I said I need something that’s more attuned to what I’m hearing. I think I must have been wanting to play that stuff,. So as soon as I got to Berklee, I placed, which is something we were talking about the other day, I placed in the 4th semester. Which was a level of II-V-I and really good voicings - 5-note voicings. Believe it or not, I knew 4-note voicings, but I didn’t know all the time what to do with the 5th note – like in saxophone section voicings – that was always the pungent note, you know?
And that was the first thing I learned, so as soon as I got there I was learning the exact things that I was curious about. And it was through the Berklee system, and the Berklee system is perfectly fine.
RG: You talk about Roger Williams and guys like that, but can you remember who were your guys - who were the guys who first made an impact on you, that other people would identify as jazz guys?
KW: Well when people say, ‘who were the people who influenced you when you were growing up?’, I always say, and I mean it – Chico Marx, Jimmy Durante, Liberace, Roger Williams, a little bit of Victor Borge, and Fats Waller. So most of the piano players I liked were actually, you know, actors in a way. Jimmy Durante – I’m not sure if you remember him – he used to get pissed off, his act was that he would get pissed off while he was playing and he would start literally – before The Who – he’d start breaking the piano up until it was all over the ground!
So that’s really what it was. Then when I was going to the Manhattan School of Music I was living with a guy who was going to Columbia, who was a real bebop alto player, so he had tons of Charlie Parker. The first time I really heard consistent stuff, oddly enough, was when I was at Manhattan School of Music studying concert piano, because he had all these records. And the first record that really took me was Miles Davis, ‘In A Silent Way’. Because you see I was never into – as you can tell by all the things I say – I was never into art for art’s sake. Because I wasn’t bred with that so I couldn’t co-opt it. It’s really not who I am. Now when I was younger, I was embarrassed about that, but now I embrace it, because that’s who I am. The older you get, you might as well embrace it and then you get something new in your playing.
So, I was more interested in that period, the early 70s and late 60s – which was a very mystical period of jazz – it wasn’t about the classicism of jazz like it became in the 80s. I suddenly realized that everything is new, when it gets to a certain point - and this is what happened with religion all the way down the line - it would get to a very mystical point and it would get too ethereal for the masses and someone would reinstall the rules, and that would be a severe period. And you see that in almost everything – in society, in religion – and the same thing happened in jazz - the 80s had to happen.
But at that time it was a very mystical period and they were talking about concepts – mind-blowing shit you know, the music was about that, and the music had a different mystical bent to it. You could tell that those guys – whether it was artificial or real – were delving into other levels of consciousness. Whether they were taking things, it wasn’t the 40s or 50s, they weren’t taking heroin and playing as deep into the beat as possible – I think they were taking Acid or mushrooms, I mean people were interested in that stuff in the 70s. And so was I, so actually, ‘In A Silent Way’ put me, without drugs, into a different zone and I loved it, so I listened to it over and over again. And I realized that it was that zone I was more interested in and the only music that even came close to doing that, at that time, was jazz.
So that, (In A Silent Way), was the first important record, and then I started to listen to everything else. I’d heard a number of things because I was living with that guy, but I really started to put records on when I got to Berklee, and I got excited because of the people around me. I’m actually very influenced by a crowd I’m in, you know? And that’s what everyone was doing and so I started to do it. It’s very different to most people’s jazz background – the kids say ‘yeah, when I was 15 I was listening to that and then I went to the Vanguard’, but I just had a very bastardized upbringing from an artistic standpoint.
RG: So in that period – the early 70s - were you influenced by, for example - I’ll give the classic examples – the big three in 60s were Herbie, McCoy, and then Chick, and I guess Keith Jarrett a little bit later
KW: Late 60s early 70s
RG: Yeah – was there a point where, for example, those three guys………
KW: Yes – when I went to Berklee. Before I got to Berklee, I don’t know if I heard much of any of them. I’m telling you, I really was not aware or tuned into it. The guy I was living was playing bebop, so it actually wasn’t those guys either. I’m sure I heard them, but I don’t remember having heard them.
Then in Boston I heard McCoy and Bill Evans more than anybody. Every time they came to Boston I heard them, and whenever Bill was playing I’d go every night. Because it was just my kind of music, my kind of chords…. I think I’m still influenced by that. And then when I came on to Keith Jarrett I think the first thing I heard was him playing with Art Blakey. They play ‘Secret Love’ at a really up tempo and each guy begins his solo with a 4-bar break. And then Keith takes a 4-bar break – and it is absolutely some new shit! No one ever played anything like that – the rhythmic turnaround and everything. And then, as he canvassed the beat at that tempo, it was just locked in – so relaxed, but with different kind of lines. It wasn’t a modal kind of thing that Herbie to some extent, McCoy to a complete extent, and Chick – more diminished, but still a pentatonic approach, a modal approach.
He was the first guy who wasn’t doing that. It had a real flowery, almost Lizst or Chopin-istic thing, and that was more my thing, so I really latched onto him from that point on.
So that’s how it was – it was Herbie, and Chick once he got to….. I went to see A.R.C. , and that had a big influence on me. If you listen to some of my early music that was a little more free like ‘Heads’ , it was mimicking, consciously or unconsciously, A.R.C. They would play a head and continue improvising on the same rhythm as the head, and that just blew me away. I didn’t know what I’d heard, but I just thought it was fascinating.
RG: So I guess you were in Berklee and then you moved back to New York I suppose. What was your first kind of name gig with a name player, an older guy?
KW: Oh it was Archie Shepp. In fact I was almost getting ready to quit……… well I had made that record with Charles Mingus (“Something Like A Bird”), and probably before Archie, I’m sure before Archie I played with someone……… you know it was the 70s. and they had a saying about the 70s – if you remember them you weren’t there. That is SO true for me! I’m sure I played with some heavy guys, but I can’t remember them. But the first gig, the first steady gig, was Archie Shepp at the beginning of the 80s.
RG: And what was that like?
KW: It was very informative in a lot of ways, for one thing it helped me get to a level of rhythm that I had not had previously. Because I’d never toured for six weeks before – they still had tours like that then. I’d never toured for six weeks playing almost every night – exhausted, but with a great rhythm section – with John Betsch and Santi DiBriano. And when I came home I was on a new level.
And Archie still had a flavor of ‘the life’, when it was still a more dangerous life, and I witnessed some of that too you know…. I was already into this Zen-ish – and I hate to use the term because people say ‘are you into Zen’ – no, but you know what Effortless Mastery is about. So I was into this approach, but I was amazed that he could come in, either at the fastest tempo or whatever, and in a firestorm of people who were pissed off or whatever, and be completely unaffected and just do his thing. And that was very instructive to me, because that was the first guy I saw, since I started practicing that did that, who could – I never saw him leave that totally naturally state of ‘this is what I’m gonna play, and here it comes’.
Like he played Giant Steps with a looseness that no one has ever played. He’d actually play it, the whole thing was like one statement, and he could play anything inside it. And sometimes it was a little off, and sometimes it was amazingly loose and right at the same time. So I learned all those kinds of things from him
RG: That thing is amazing – a thing I wish I could do – where musicians can remain unaffected by the outside environment. I remember seeing George Coleman at Ronnie Scott’s one time – with Hilton Ruiz, Herbie Lewis and Billy Higgins – and the police raided the place, grabbed these five people from the front row, pulled them out, and the band didn’t even seem to notice, they just kept playing! I was sitting there, completely stunned that a band could not seem to even notice something like that. Now maybe they did notice, but they didn’t give any indication that they did – Billy Higgins was still smiling and George Coleman was still burning!
KW: You know, I think that’s one of the most fascinating things about, I guess you could say jazz, but I would just say playing music – is that a person can get inside the experience, and everything else they become a witness to, but they don’t have to be affected. There are parallels in spiritual disciplines to that, but there’s a jazz version of it too.
RG: So, you were playing with name players , Archie Shepp and maybe other people – what about your own groups, was the trio with Tom Rainey and Ratzo Harris your first one?
KW: No, the first band I started was in the 70s, with Billy Drewes, Scott Lee, Pete Dennis the drummer, Jamey Haddad on percussion. It was called ‘Abladu’ – I made up the name. It happened because Billy was on the road with Woody Herman and he fell down some steps that weren’t marked properly and cracked his head open – he’s got a plate in his head now. He was in the hospital and we were all very worried about him, we were very tight when we were at Berklee . I came to the hospital and said ‘ you know when you get out of here we’re going to form a group’ - you know, I just cared about him so much. And then that became a group and we were together for a number of years. We never made a record but we made recordings, and they were really good. I remember Ornette Coleman hearing us once and really liked it, Brookmeyer would come and liked it. That meant a lot to us, when someone of that iconic level heard us and would say ‘wow you guys are really doing something’. And that band remained together for X amount of years, but it didn’t get out of the 70s.
And then in the early 80s I started playing with Tom Rainey and Ratzo Harris. That band lasted fourteen years, not continuously working, but definitely fourteen years.
RG: I remember seeing the trio, I guess you guys would have been well underway by the time I saw you, probably in ’90 or ‘91
KW: In America or in Europe?
RG: In America. And I remember being completely blown away by the combination of complexity and openness. At least that’s what I felt in terms of the way you guys played. Because a lot of it, particularly the original compositions, were very complex in terms of the heads and especially the rhythmic stuff – catching hits and things like that.
KW: Well the whole idea was to play them really easily. So that’s what messes with your mind, you say ‘wow, this sounds so natural, but………..what’s happening!?’ I always admire that in painting or music – surreal, but not in the way they classically mean. You know, again – consciousness distortion. I guess I was just a freak for that stuff. And it was one thing to play those tunes, but we wouldn’t play them in public unless we could play them like you’d play a blues. And that’s what messes your mind – it’s like, ‘what’s going on? It’s an alternate universe!’
RG: Did you guys discuss it like that?
RG: Was it a thing or……..?
KW: That was my thing! They could play anything - they were way ahead of me on everything, and whenever I wrote a tune they could play it way before I could. They could play it, you know, on sight, and then I had to play it a long time before I could make music on it. First I would just try to hang – the only guy who would get lost in that band was me! That’s why, as I told you the other day, that’s why I hired those guys. I wanted to get paid to learn (laughs). It was great, you would hire the cats you could learn from.
And the same thing was true with Ari (Hoenig), and Johannes (Weidenmuller), I’d bring a tune in, they’d nail it – like we’d play ‘26-2-5’ – at first I was always trying to catch up to it, and they were tolerating it.
RG: Sounds like my struggles with that piece over the last few days!
KW: (Laughs) In a way, but I mean you just read it first time, I didn’t do any better than you did. Actually I didn’t do as well as you did, when I first played it – the thing that I wrote. And that happened with a lot of pieces I wrote. And so they had to endure it while I gradually got on top of it. And the more I got on top of it the more it became a standard to play. You know, the bigger the gig was, the less of that I did. I did that when the gig didn’t pay anything, or was a toilet, or if it was a college. I’d say, let’s practice that tune again – or in a rehearsal.
RG: And in the music – because I have I think nearly all the recordings by that trio – ‘Introducing the Trio’ is the first one and then ‘Press Enter’ which is the next - there’s a very clear identity with the trio, particularly in the compositional approach and also with the approach to the standards, that I think is particularly yours. And I still hear it in your music now, and in all the trios that you’ve had – in your compositional approach. Was this something – and I’m thinking particularly here of the rhythmic complexity combined with this opulent harmonic and melodic approach…….
KW: Harmonically yeah……….
RG: Yeah, which you often don’t get
RG: Because a lot of the time when people bring in the complex rhythm, everything gets gnarly immediately. And what really impressed me about your trio was that both of these things were combined
KW: Well that was territory that I staked out for myself consciously. One thing I like to do is that I see what’s been done – I’m very contrarian – I see what’s done, and I start by doing the opposite. Like if I were to make an organ record, it would not be anything to do with typical organ, it would be a free record. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother. Once I know it’s all been done, it doesn’t turn me on.
So I knew – and it was actually a source of misunderstanding among critics, if you pay any regard to that stuff – because we played with a softness, they didn’t see the newness of it at all. But the guys who were traditionalists, they didn’t consider us traditional, so we were kind of between a rock and a hard place.
But I staked out that territory – I’m gonna play with a rhythmic edge where it doesn’t forsake harmony, AND it’s also played with a relaxed naturalness that makes it feel like an alternate reality. I don’t have to hear rhythmic complexity and immediately think of anger - or protest. And I consciously grabbed that area.
RG: So that kind of answers the question I was going to ask you – if there was any precursor to that?
KW: Well there were tunes that I wrote 10 years before that, very few of which I played with the trio, but which I played with Abladu. One of which was called ‘Katy’ - (sings melody) – I used to write tunes with multiple time signatures, not because I wanted to be complex - actually I thought this was because I was left-handed – I never was comfortable just playing 8-bar phrases, and the phrases I would write were never just 8-bar phrases. So I would write the melody and then superimpose the time signatures, and I had a number of tunes like that. And ten years later, when I kept working on that kind of thing, I had a refined way of playing that way, and a whole different set of tunes.
RG: And I’ll ask you a very specific question, is that piece called ‘In Tune’ from that period?
KW: Yes! That’s exactly it – it has different time signatures so that the melody can flow the way it flows. It still feels natural but it fits in places that were better expressed if you have a 2/4 bar here and a 3/4 bar there.
RG: Because I should tell you something about that tune – I teach rhythm in different schools as a guest teacher, and at the end of a typical clinic I’ll play pieces for the students that use complex rhythm as a compositional device. And in the middle of a sea of gnarliness – I play them all kinds of things - I’ll play them ‘In Tune’, but I don’t give them the score, and when the melody has played down, I’ll say ‘OK, let’s look at the score’, and they’re always amazed at the music’s complexity, because …
KW: It sounds very normal
RG: It sounds like a beautiful melodic piano trio tune with lovely harmonies
RG: And then I always tell them to look at the date of composition – because it’s written in 1978!
KW: Oh my God, I guess so………
RG: I know the date, because you gave me the lead sheet years ago when we first played together.
KW: Was it a hand-written sheet?
KW: It was also very nicely written, wasn’t it?
RG: Beautifully written
KW: That was my girlfriend Katy that I wrote the other tune for, because she did calligraphy. I had her copy all my tunes!
RG: Wow, that was a good move, because this was very beautifully written – I was very impressed with your hand writing!
KW: Yeah, I know it sure as hell wasn’t me! (Laughs)
RG: But I always thought this tune was an interesting example of this thing where you have hidden complexity.
KW: Yes, and not only that, but that particular tune – and also the tune ‘Katy’ – would remind you of an early Keith Jarrett tune in the 70s, I know that I was very influenced by that. And this tune ‘In Tune’, if you really look at the harmonic side of it, I think you hear strains of Bill Evans, and you hear strains of Keith Jarrett. Like – (sings first phrase of ‘In Tune’ melody), that could be Bill Evans, but – (sings second phrase) – I feel that was a little more Keith Jarrett. I wasn’t doing that consciously, but these were the sounds I liked. I didn’t know how to turn tunes around unless I had multiple time signatures. The thing is, later on, a tune like……….. like….oh come on, don’t be like that on your own own tune…….. this one – (sings staccato melody)
RG: Jackson Five?
KW: Jackson Five – thank you! And actually later on we recorded it on “Live at the Blue Note’ with Ari and Johannes and it’s called ‘All Things Are You’, because it actually was made, in my mind, off All The Things You Are’. And it’s tremendously modulated, but there’s only one 5/4 bar in it, the whole thing is in 4/4. And that’s what I learned to do later on – not needing the time signatures – because this way when you blew on it, it was straight ahead.
RG: OK, we’ve talked about the trio with Tom and Ratzo, and also the one with Ari and Johannes – so, an obvious question; bass and drums – what do you look for?
KW: I look for, first, that they have to have some kind of virtuosic control over the instrument. I don’t meant that they have to be able to impress everybody, I mean they have to be able to play the instrument that well. So that’s there’s no barrier to getting to the music, technically. Secondly they have to have a good groove, underneath, whether we hear that groove or not, it has to be there somewhere.
I’ll add a third thing, they have to be able to play complexity in time signatures or modulations or things like that because a lot of my music has that in it. If I play with somebody, and even if they played it right but they really struggled, that wouldn’t be the guy - that would be the sub. You know? I mean when Ari played some of this music, it kind of freaked me out - sometimes I didn’t think he was looking at the music! They sussed it out so fast, I said ‘good!’ – I wanted guys for whom my thing, which some people would call complex, would find unchallenging, you know? Because that gives it an air of an alternate reality.
And lastly they have to have – at least one of the two, maybe not both of the two because then it gets to be a crowded trio – but either the bass player or the drummer is a volcano of ideas. They don’t just play time, they’re always creating ideas, because I like to react to the ideas – in the first trio, Ratzo’s ideas, because Tom was very giving. That trio worked because of Tom, he would bridge between the two of us, and didn’t feel the need to like you know….. Ratzo was just very original, everything he played was original and brilliant and so I wanted to learn to react to that, and Tom made it happen as a connector. In the next band it was Ari, and Johannes was that kind of personality – very giving.
So the last thing is that one of the two guys really has a lot of brilliant ideas, while playing the tune, and I react to those. And that is the sound of that group, that’s how you get a group sound – or that’s how I get a group sound. I don’t want to lead, I want to react.
Composing for Large Ensembles
Composing for Large Ensembles
RG: Then another side of you that’s really come out in recent times, is the composition for large groups and all that. The origins of that I guess would have been working with Mel Lewis?
KW: The Mel Lewis Orchestra. I had written a couple of big band pieces at Berklee, and one of them was a re-arrangement of ‘A Child Is Born’, and it was quite successful, but I never really thought about it. When - and this is kind of a funny story - when I joined Mel, one time at an IAJE conference, I’m sitting with Mel and Bob Brookmeyer, and Brookmeyer was no longer part of the band, and of course Thad was no longer part of the band. And Brookmeyer turns to me and says, ‘Yeah, in this next phase, Jim (McNeely) will be the next Bob Brookmeyer, and you’ll be the next Thad jones’. Or something like that – you’ll be Thad Jones in terms of temperament of the pieces. And I thought to myself, well first of all nobody’s going to be the next Thad Jones! But I guess he thought I had that kind of approach, and Jim had that approach like Bob Brookmeyer’s. But it was a hell of a challenge, you know? (Laughs)
But I wrote ‘Compensation’, that was the first chart I wrote for that band – I think I wrote three or four charts for them – because in those days I used to handwrite them, and I was very slow – really, it seemed like two years it took to write that chart. But it comes off, definitely, as being influenced by Thad, as occasionally my charts will. If you listen to the things on the albums with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, the one called ‘Naked InThe Cosmos’, we do ‘Portrait of Jenny’ and there you can hear Thad Jones all over the place.
So that got me writing, because the thing that really got me writing was being offered gigs, because if you were in the Mel Lewis Orchestra, and other orchestras wanted you to play, they……… I got a call from the WDR Band to do a couple of things, and I got a call from the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra. Then I did a project where I wrote a whole bunch of stuff for Joe (Lovano), some of which I subsequently did with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, and I’m sorry I didn’t think to call Joe to play on it! A number of those pieces were specifically from that, and we did a whole bunch of Scandinavian things – we did the UMO Orchestra, we did the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, we did the Danish. And that was the first time I took a whole programme out there, you know, and from that point on, I never just sat around and wrote, I kept getting commissions.
And the genesis of that was that I was in the Mel Lewis Orchestra. I even got one project from the WDR Orchestra, writing something for Simon Nabatov. And you know I didn’t really know how to write for that, and in some ways it was a disaster, although people thought it was great. But in a number of important ways it was a disaster, I didn’t know what I was doing – I was supposed to write a 10 minute piece but the thing was like 50 minutes! I couldn’t gauge that. I’d started using a computer, and when I started using Finale, those pieces got longer! They really did…..
There’s a chart I wrote, I think it’s on the record, called ‘Bob Brookmeyer’ – it’s a Brookmeyer-ish kind of tune I arranged. It was a hand written chart, so I guess I must have gotten into it at some point, and the first one was over a thousand bars, with all these different events in it. And Earl Gardner, the lead trumpet player said, ‘That’s the first time I ever played a chart with over a thousand bars in it!’ And what he was telling me was that it was way too fucking long! So I went back and did some editing of it, and it went down to five hundred and sixty bars or something like that. And it was a nice chart, I mean I could see that I could do this, but I had a lot more to learn.
Every time I wrote any more it was because I got a commission. The latest record which is called ‘Institute of Higher Learning’, that very tune was commissioned by MIT, there’s a suite called ‘Cantabile’ that was commissioned by the University of North Carolina. Almost everything…. There’s a piece on the first record called ‘All That’, that was commissioned by a Japanese band. I never just sat around writing music, and I’ll tell you, Mel told me something once, he said ‘Thad never wrote a piece of music that he was never paid for”, and I thought, ‘oh that’s cool’, and I have say, when it comes to the big works, I haven’t either….
RG: Apparently Stravinsky was allegedly asked……..
KW: Yes, didn’t I tell you that? Yeah, he was asked ‘Maestro, what is your motivation for a piece? ’, he said, ‘You pay me a commission, I write you a piece’ (laughs)
RG: The one I heard was that someone asked him, ‘what questions do you ask when someone wants you to write a piece for them?’, and Stravinsky said. ‘how much, and how long?’
KW: Oh yeah , you told me that one, and the one I heard from Oscar Castaneda was, ‘what is your inspiration for a piece? ’ - ‘You pay me a commission, I write you a piece!’
RG: It shows a very pragmatic approach
KW: I LOVE that man, well, we were talking about that before, how some things that have become institutions start in the most meager of ways, or offhanded ways.
RG: And when you’re writing for an orchestra, or a jazz orchestra, let me ask you this….
KW: Well before you do, let me just say – the bridge to orchestral writing, which is where I’m presently trying to go more, and where I am not as expert as I would be with other things, came from working several times with the Metropole Orchestra. They had me multiple times, and that was almost a bridge, because it was a big band in the middle of it, and an orchestra. And it got better every time – it sounded more orchestral-like. The first thing you’ve got to do is learn to write more orchestral-like, and then you’ve written something completely unimportant, but at least it sounds like an orchestral piece! Now I’m trying to get to the point where I can assert my personality, with some degree of professionalism in the orchestration. But that was the bridge.
Then I’ve had something this summer, something featuring my trio – I did a four movement thing and an encore, featuring a trio with the orchestra, and I tried something really different and I think it was a complete failure. Partially because of the way they played it, but I can’t tell how much was one or the other. I’m presently re-writing it now, I want to play it somewhere else, just to feature my trio.
So I get opportunities here and there and that’s what I’m most interested in trying. I’d like to get to the point where I’m as comfortable with that as I am playing. As I told you, the real natural thing for me would be to take my improvisations, which are orchestral – they’re not pianistic, not in my mind. If I’m thinking I’m playing the piano, I don’t play well – I start playing forced stuff. But if I’m feeling orchestral, or even Soundtrack-y, I can do anything, whether I worked on it or not, you know? But where I don’t have the chops, is to, as professionally as I played it, orchestrate it. But someday that’s what I simply have to do. I have so many solo piano things, I could write five hundred pieces right now, just transcribing intros! (Laughs)
And that’s what I’ve got to do, I now write in a way where I start with some notes, I play with them, so I get to the orchestration by writing the piece. And that’s OK, but it doesn’t sound as much like my personality as when I play, and I think that’s what I’d like to do next - really know how to orchestrate my own improvisations.
RG: OK, that’s interesting because that is kind of the question I was going to ask you. The question I was going to ask you was - when you’re writing the piece, and you’ve kind of answered it in a way, do you write the composition for the orchestra, or do you write the piece first and then orchestrate it.
KW: Well I didn’t quite answer that question, actually. At first I made the mistake that probably most people do, of trying to write for orchestra. What happens is that you write a thematically weak piece of music, because you’re writing sort of ………….
KW: Vertically, you know? And then I slowly realized, and it’s something I heard Brookmeyer say too, that just having one or two lines can take you through the whole piece. Now I still haven’t totally done that, but I absolutely believe in it. And when I’m sitting around thinking about it, I think ‘of course!’ – because you can write to accompany this theme all the way, but you don’t have to have the theme in there all the way. So some of the other movements relate in some way.
Actually I do have some stuff like that, if you hear some of my extended big band stuff, it’s like that. Like ‘Naked in The Cosmos’, the actual piece, and ‘Sasumi’ – that actual piece. There are a lot of recurring themes all the time and it just happened naturally, because I just keep orchestrating the thing and it takes me into a different zone, and then I remove the melody.
So, you know, the orchestra, I still have to do it more. I have to really, from beginning to end, just do that. I’m hearing it in other people’s music, but somehow when I have the whole score in front of me I get distracted.
RG: Do you ever write away from the piano?
KW: I always write away from the piano, but I never write away from the computer, and I use a keyboard. My method of entry is a keyboard, so I guess no, never – but it’s not in order to hear it, that’s how I enter the notes. Which is a lot better for me then writing them. I’m left handed – I know you’re left handed too….
RG: I sympathise completely!
KW: But it just aches me to try to get the notes down on paper, it really liberated me when I could use a computer
RG: Yeah, for me too, I had exactly the same experience. Mind you, I’m a really terrible piano player, so it was even better for me to discover the computer!
KW: Right, you could really hear it back at whatever tempo you wanted it at.
RG: Exactly! And I remember reading – I’m a complete Bartok freak – when I read that he wrote the complete Concerto for Orchestra in six weeks in a barn, up at Lake Saranac….
KW: Without an instrument.
RG: Without an instrument.
KW: I gotta say one thing – I’m not surprised. And I should try it, but I can’t because I enter the notes with a keyboard. This is why, sometimes when I enter the notes with a keyboard and I don’t perpetually play it back the way a lot of people do, that’s the best writing I do. And I’m not sure why, but I know part of it is visual, I can see where things are interacting. And I’m not so carefully not trying to calibrate the harmonies. And I when I finally play it back I say, ‘wow, that’s really good’, and the parts I think are inferior is when I play it back over and over again, and I tweak it over and over again. So I’m not surprised – I think I could do that. It wouldn’t be a piece…. The question is what quality of a piece would it be!? (laughs) But I kind of understand it, let me put it that way.
RG: I once took some composition lessons from the famous teacher in Boston, Charlie Banacos
KW: Oh yeah
RG: And I remember he sent me, and showed me some systems which he said were really interesting. And I wrote some stuff according to these systems, which I’d never done before, and I did them on paper, without the instrument – I just wrote them, and I was stunned at what came out. I applied the way I think about music to a series of systems that he had, and then I listened to them. And it was extraordinary because in a way I would have never written that music if I’d done it in my normal way, because I’d removed myself from the way I normally work, so therefore there was a certain editing process that would normally go on, but that was now removed.
KW: But that’s also another thing for me – I got to hang out with Donald Erb, I don’t know if you know his writing, a great American composer, he was the composer in residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Because we were both teaching at Gunther Schuller’s Idaho Sandpoint Camp, which was three weeks every summer. And I got to hang with him, which was great. My thing is all editing, I just ‘save as, save as, save as’, and the thing just morphs into something else. And then I might take something from towards the beginning - sometimes the last thing I wrote becomes the first part of the piece, you know? It’s very liberating, and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I might say ‘alright I’ll transpose that bar by a minor third – I’ll make that a bar of 7/4, it changes the pace of it’ – you know?
And each one relates, but they’re not exactly sonata allegro form….. But you do hear themes, like dolphins, re-emerging in a very natural way with this way of writing. It was Brookmeyer who gave me this idea when he talked about writing in cells. But then I went crazy with that idea, you know? But I realized that what I was doing was not just because I had a computer – composers have done this for years, except for the naturals like Thad Jones and Mozart. I mean Thad Jones, without the score, would write the saxes and then the trumpets, you know? Which to me is mind boggling.
RG: Rimsky-Korsakov did the same thing
KW: Well there were a few, but on the other hand Beethoven, from what I understand, was a big editor. So Donald said, he played this concerto he wrote which was 40 to 45 ferocious minutes, and he said, ‘to write that piece I had to throw out a whole room full of paper’. So he was doing the very same thing as me, but it makes more sense than ever to do it on computer, because on paper, if you want to write a different version of it, you have to write out the rest of it and then add that one change!! I said, ‘Oh my god, I would never write another piece of music again if I had to do that!’ (Laughs)
But that’s how I get to good stuff. Eventually stuff gets really rich and layered, just by constantly editing – save as/edit, save as/edit…… And then you piece them together, which I also heard Stravinsky did – you would probably be able to confirm this – I think it was in ‘Firebird’ – Stravinsky just didn’t know how to fit it together, and he just put pieces on the floor
RG: I hadn’t heard that…..
KW: And the order he put on the floor became how he did it. That’s exactly what I do, except it’s a lot neater on the screen
RG: I’m sure that’s quite true, because there’s actually a lot of stuff that’s very mundane in terms of the way people operate. I remember being told by someone who’d seen Coltrane’s band several times in the 60s, and he said that one thing that always struck him was how mundane everything seemed, until they actually got on the stage. In other words they were just hanging, just hanging out and talking. One always gets the impression that they were meditating before playing or something, but they were just hanging out and then they would walk on the stage and just play.
KW: I mean to me that’s the Zen of jazz. I mean it’s like what you were saying about George Coleman, there’s a Zen to it, because when you get to play on a certain level, it just happens, you know? So yeah, you could be doing ridiculous things or destructive things, a minute before you go on stage, but then, on stage, you’re into the same zone. It’s a muscle memory.
The Current Scene
The Current Scene
RG: OK, a final question – the current scene. First of all, how much do you check it out, and secondly, if you do check it out, what are your general thoughts about it?
KW: I don’t get to check it out much, but I get to hear it, and I would say on a technical and rhythmic level, and even in terms of classical exposition, the music has reached a place it’s never been before. And there are undoubtedly some players that have taken the level of even just playing the piano that I don’t recall hearing before. Of course Chick Corea and Keith etc. are the greatest piano players, but I mean what they, (the current generation), are doing just seems, on those levels, beyond anything that was done. So I think the music has hit a new level.
I don’t really have any criticisms of it, because sometimes it’s amazingly mature too. Like how long they wait before they let that solo go, and stay within these motifs and stuff. I know with the Cuban guys there’s that school, it’s almost like Russia, they’re required to be great classical players and also jazz players, and of course Afro-Cuban music, which gives them a fantastic sense of rhythm.
And there are so many of them! On every instrument! I feel like a master race has been reincarnated. I’ve been feeling like that for about ten years now. I just think the music, whether it’s because of education, or genes, or second or third generation players, the music has generally hit a level like nothing we’ve ever seen. Because, in the past, even if there were a few players that played on that level, most didn’t. Now that doesn’t denigrate what they did, in fact what they did might still be more meaningful than what these guys are doing. But it is just a fact, whether you want to talk about touch, motivic development, rhythm, chops - for piano players – left hand – that used to be a rarity. There was Phineas Newborn and that was it! (laughs)
It’s a new level. And what I like about that when I hear it, which is usually live, is that it immediately gets me practicing with a greater sense of purpose. When I’m finally relegated to the place of ‘old school guy’, which I might be already. But the nice thing is that the young guys seek me out, they want to play with me, so somehow I’m in that milieu. But, I like new, so I’m hanging in there as long as possible – I get the sense of a race, like I’ve tripped and fallen but they keep going (Laughs). I’m never going to do all the things some of these guys are doing, but it forces to me get back to working on things.
That’s what I enjoy, like being able to do some complexity stuff simply, that I couldn’t do before – that makes me feel young. I could be twenty or I could be sixty, because when you hit that place where you’re finally playing nine freely, or whatever it is you’re doing, or a two-handed thing or whatever - you’ve got that sensation of feeling like you’re not wasting your life, you know? (Laughs) And a lot of my favourite musicians, they don’t talk about their performances, at all. It’s never about their concerts or about what they’re doing, it’s always about what they’re working on, you know? And I think that’s what’s going to keep me interested – especially my life, I have to find things to keep myself interested.
There are two things keeping me interested – to see if I can continue to grow as a pianist, and to see if I can become a really bona-fide and, as I am with everything else, my own voice type of orchestral writer. And I have to add a third – if the fates ever allow it, and the right guy reads this blog – to score movies, which I am ready to do!
And so, those are the things I can still hope for.
RG: Thanks very much Kenny
KW: Yeah Ronan, thank you.
Here's Kenny's current trio in action, playing a typically playful and lyrical version of 'If I should Lose You'
Here's Kenny's current trio in action, playing a typically playful and lyrical version of 'If I should Lose You'