Jazz Pianist Kenny Werner Shines As A Solo Act In 'The Space'

3 hours ago
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz pianist Kenny Werner has worked in all kinds of settings, backing diverse singers and saxophonists, including Joe Lovano and Jane Ira Bloom or fronting trios and playing in big bands. Still, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Werner has made some of his best music solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY WERNER'S "TARO")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: For Kenny Werner, like other jazz pianists, playing solo is an occasion for musing aloud at the keyboard. With no distractions, no other voices responding, he can mull over tunes at his own pace - not that he's a dawdler. Kenny Werner plays a couple of standards on his new album, including a lively take on the ballad "If I Should Lose You."

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY WERNER'S "IF I SHOULD LOSE YOU")

WHITEHEAD: Keith Jarrett is one touchstone for lyrical, nuanced solo improvising like this. Kenny Werner is no Jarrett imitator. Werner's romantic flights are less extravagant. But he tips his hat, playing his own variations on a Jarrett encore from a 1984 Tokyo concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY WERNER'S "ENCORE FROM TOKYO")

WHITEHEAD: Kenny Werner's solo album is named "The Space," which is what he calls that state of mind when he's in the zone as an improviser. That name might also refer to the importance of open space within his music. You can't crowd the keys all the time. A central episode in the album's long title suite moves in and out of a flexible habanera rhythm in the left hand. That come-and-go background figure makes his improvisation loose and gently propulsive at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY WERNER'S "THE SPACE")

WHITEHEAD: Like many jazz pianists, Kenny Werner often casts his left hand in a subsidiary role so as not to distract from the spontaneous melody he layers on top. His composition "Fifth Movement" is built on a sequence of four broken chords murmured in the background while his right hand sings from the keys.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY WERNER'S "FIFTH MOVEMENT")

WHITEHEAD: Kenny Werner's first memorable solo album, 40 years ago, was a recital of compositions by Gershwin, Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke and James P. Johnson. But his music now is more personal, more emotionally resonant and poignant. It's infused with something beyond an authoritative keyboard touch and deep musical knowledge. Call it wisdom. His piano sings with the voice of experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY WERNER'S "YOU MUST BELIEVE IN SPRING")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Kenny Werner's new solo album "The Space."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Rock Hudson's double life. He was a Hollywood heartthrob, a leading man in the 1950s and '60s. But he was gay and had to hide that from the public. Hudson died in 1985 of AIDS-related causes, and that marked a turning point in public awareness of the epidemic. My guest will be Mark Griffin, author of a new biography of Rock Hudson. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zaidie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY WERNER'S "YOU MUST BELIEVE IN SPRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.