Kenny Werner is considered to be at the vanguard of contemporary jazz. His talent as a pianist couples innovative polyrhythmic, melodic and harmonic complexities with a playful and adventurous spirit. However, what fuels Werner as a musician and endows his music with both beauty and accessibility is an unquenchable passion for playing in the zone.
After jumping from classical piano at the Manhattan School of Music to studying improvisational jazz at Berklee, he found his first great teacher who introduced him to the concept of “effortlessness” and the idea that “all music is about playing for god.” Later he would be taught to simplify his practicing into short, focused meditative sessions which helped Werner develop the innate capacity for spirit to move freely through him when it came time to perform.
I realized that the goal is letting go of my ego and being kind to myself, playing only what wants to come out effortlessly. I now knew that I could observe myself play and embrace the spiritual ideas of service and surrender. The pursuit of these ideals would stretch me further than my limited consciousness could ever do and make me a better player.
Werner’s music career spans decades and dozens of recordings with legendary jazz greats, and his compositions have merited Grammy nominations. He is also a highly sought after educator and clinician. He shares his unique insights in his 1996 book Effortless Mastery, and in two DVD’s: Effortless Mastery, and Living Effortless Mastery – which was newly released in 2009 and includes video of his trio’s extraordinary live performances at the Blue Note. Soon, he will begin in recording his newest opus, No Beginning, No End for 35-piece Wind ensemble for Half Note Records, and he is also working on a commissioned suite for Jazz soloists and 45-piece orchestra.
Werner spoke with SuperConsciousness as he embarked on an extensive summer jazz festival tour throughout North American and Europe.
SC: You are famous for saying that the only reason to play music is either because you are overcome by spirit, or that the spirit is playing through you – and that lighting up the audience is all about being lit up yourself.
KW: An artist’s main job is actually a selfish one – to turn themselves on. If they are not turned on, then nobody gets any vibration. It’s no accident that many great artists in history were either drug addicts or alcoholics, because they were motivated by something much more sincere than the “state of the art.” They had a deep need to “get off” when they played or when they wrote. There’s the story about Mozart wanting to do his opera in German but the standard was Italian. But, you know, he just had to do it in German. That’s true innovation – it’s based on, “I just have to do this because doing it in German will get me off and doing it in Italian won’t.”
IF THEY THINK THEIR MUSIC SHOULD BE SPIRITUAL, THEN THAT MUSIC WILL HAVE NO POWER WHATSOEVER. IT’S NOT ABOUT WHAT THEY THINK THEY SHOULD BE, IT’S WHERE THEY ARE – THAT’S WHERE THEIR POWER LIES.
My conception of an artist is that they are givers and the analogy I like to use is a light bulb. In the bulb there is a filament and the way that the filament lights the room is by a shockwave of electricity running through its tiny body. As a result, it vibrates and when it vibrates at a high enough frequency, it starts to light up. So, in other words, the filament is turned on and as a result, the room is lit. The filament doesn’t have the “desire” to light the room, lighting up just happens once current is sent through it: the light bulb gets off. Artists are in touch with that part of themselves – the part that wants to light up, and the strongest artists are the ones who are more motivated by getting off than by “art.”
Where is the musician being taken? A musician may create from their heart, or their soul or their genitals. If they are more intellectually dominated then fine, let their music be that. Is the musician a sex-addict? Fine, let the music be that. That’s great music. Are they a spiritual person? Great, let their music reflect that. But, if they think their music should be spiritual, then that music will have no power whatsoever. It’s not about what they think they should be, it’s where they are – that’s where their power lies.
SC: Jazz is a genre with relatively small audiences – hanging on – yet you have thrived.
KW: I started out playing weddings and bar mitzvahs. It was tortuous to earn a living that way, so I used to amuse myself with a question: If I played everything completely out of key, and dissonantly, but with the assumption that what I was playing was consonant, would I upset the room? So at this gig at the Waldorf Astoria once, I started playing the inane song of that era – the waltz from the movie Dr. Zhivago – but played it in two different keys simultaneously. It really sounded more like, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” I was watching this one guy as he drank his martini, and I witnessed the moment he realized what he was hearing. He turns around and looks at me so I nod and give him the most courteous lounge piano smile you could imagine. Reassured, he turned back around and went back to his conversation.
That’s really a mundane example, but on a more profound level I really think that the reason jazz is not more popular is because people in jazz are too absorbed in the art form and they are not absorbed enough in their own “being.” I have played concerts where an entire family and kids too, come backstage and say, “We don’t know what that was we just heard, but where can we hear it again? We were delighted.” It wasn’t because I pandered to the audience and smoothed the jazz, it was because I threw the entire weight of my passion into that particular performance and they got it.
SC: Musicians from any genre can get lost in self-absorption. What you are referring to is more of a spiritual expression.
KW: Our society would have us believe, for instance, that spirituality and sexuality are opposed to each other. But in music, they are just two different floors reached by the same elevator. A musician can turn themselves on sensually by enjoying the feeling of touching their instrument and then the sensuality of letting the sound fill the orifices on either side of their head, their ears. We develop an urge to touch the instrument the way we touch our lover – not with the sense of “gee, I hope I do this correctly.” As a result, what comes out is an intoxicating sound that moves into the ears and then you become intoxicated which then inspires your touch to be even more sensual which then becomes even more intoxicating.
Music is a higher language. When sensuality is in the music, when a musician is playing and experiences that moment of “wow, this music really feels good,” that feeling gives way to spirituality very simply. At some point you go, “Wow, this feels amazing. Thank you.” Once you’ve said thank you, you’ve just transformed the sensual into the spiritual and raised the vibe to another floor. When we acknowledge something is coming through us, it feels wonderful and we thank the giver of that moment – whatever or whomever that is to us.
MUSIC IS A HIGHER LANGUAGE. WHEN SENSUALITY IS IN THE MUSIC, WHEN A MUSICIAN IS PLAYING AND EXPERIENCES THAT MOMENT OF “WOW, THIS MUSIC REALLY FEELS GOOD,” THAT FEELING GIVES WAY TO SPIRITUALITY VERY SIMPLY.
SC: You’re saying that it really doesn’t matter which part of yourself you are playing from – whether it be mind, soul, heart, or sexuality – an artist can experience their spirit from any place.
KW: An artist has no choice. Like it or not, that’s where their strength lies. If an artist wants to change, they must work outside of music to become a different kind of person, which is possible, but certainly not easy. But when it’s time to play, there is only one source that will have any resonance or life with the audience, and that is the source of where the musician’s urges truly are. They may be truly ethereal. They may be truly mystical, but whatever they truly are, that’s where you have to go.
That’s the reason why art is a process of self-discovery because if you don’t discover the self, then you are just playing from a sense of appropriateness or “the art form.” But there is no originality from those who play an “art form” because there is no creativity. You don’t create anything original – you can only recreate the art form.
SC: For many people, jazz is often incomprehensible which makes it inaccessible for them.
KW: I never blame the audience for “not getting it.” It is always the artist’s fault. The artist didn’t throw themselves into their music – they held back and let the “art” speak instead. Once you’ve turned your light on in the room where you play, people will get it and will have a special experience. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is.
Everybody is hungry to know themselves – the self. Even if jazz is not too terribly important in America, that same human curiosity exists about that divine spark in us – because, once we find that, we don’t really need anything else.
An audience might not realize that, but when they walk into a concert and the artist is bubbling from the divine spark and it’s coming out in their notes, people are drawn to it like moths to a flame because that’s really what they are looking for. To me, that is what’s behind the curtain we call entertainment – somewhere, there is an unquenchable hunger for that experience of the self.
SC: The fundamentals of jazz are to free oneself through musical expression and improvisation. How do you get more people interested?
KW: Well, you know, part of that reflects the totality of early programming. If you ever meet sons and daughters of people who dug the music, they are more likely to consume and go to listen to such music. And, in fact, sons and daughters of players are very likely to become players, not because their parents push them into it, but because it looks like so much damn fun.
If you haven’t listened to anything else except the militaristic beat of American corporate music, and you turn eighteen and someone plays you Max Roach, you can’t hear that! I had a very funny experience in the 80’s watching Saturday Night Live with a couple of young ladies. And all of a sudden out comes Ornette Coleman – he’s the musical guest! Ornette plays and does his whole harmolodic thing for about five minutes. I knew what he was doing – and it was stunning. But the ladies had these blank looks on their faces and one of them said, “You know, I don’t know what that was that we just saw.” She didn’t even mention hearing. It’s like that story about the Indians not being able to see the ships coming in because those types of ships are not in their awareness.
AN AUDIENCE MIGHT NOT REALIZE THAT, BUT WHEN THEY WALK INTO A CONCERT AND THE ARTIST IS BUBBLING FROM THE DIVINE SPARK AND IT’S COMING OUT IN THEIR NOTES, PEOPLE ARE DRAWN TO IT LIKE MOTHS TO A FLAME BECAUSE THAT’S REALLY WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING FOR. TO ME, THAT IS WHAT’S BEHIND THE CURTAIN WE CALL ENTERTAINMENT – SOMEWHERE, THERE IS AN UNQUENCHABLE HUNGER FOR THAT EXPERIENCE OF THE SELF.
Lack of awareness and early experience is responsible for some of the lesser interest in jazz. And my comments are not a blanket indictment of all corporate music because there are some gems within that – but generally we start listening to the kind of music that attracts the lowest common denominator and is the easiest to leave on and not pay any attention to. Jazz often has that annoying property of wanting to be listened to.
SC: Yet there is jazz that can be played in the background.
KW: Absolutely. I think Miles Davis actually knew how to make a record that could be done like that. I had a neighbor who was a construction contractor and he said to me, “I really dig jazz.” Then he proceeds to roll off the names of these smooth jazz guys. And I said, “No, no, no, no – none of that is jazz.” So, he said, “Well, then, give me some stuff to listen to.”
So, I gave him some Duke Ellington, one of my records, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. The one he liked the most was Miles Davis because he could put it on and he could still do what he was doing. When I asked him how he liked my CD’s, he said, “Well, it was a bit of a problem because I was spackling my fireplace and when I put your record on, I found myself sitting down and just listening.” So, for him, this was a problem because it interrupted what he was trying to do. Most people use music as background.
SC: Ambient music.
KW: Yes, or at least music that doesn’t challenge. So the problem with most jazz musicians is that they’re trying to make music on the assumption that people are going to listen to it. Miles Davis knew how to do both, that was actually one of the brilliant things about him.
Miles had the band under control and disciplined enough so that it wasn’t just about solos, it was about a group vibe. Miles was a vibrational master. When you put Kind of Blue on, it feels good in the environment. Yet, if you decide to listen to it, you just happen to be listening to the greatest soloists in the 20th century [John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans] and the best selling jazz album of all time.
What is the bridge that people can cross in order to go from not appreciating jazz to appreciating it? Again, I take it back to the humanity, the inspiration, the passion, the vibratory brilliance of the artist who’s making the music. If a musician is bored, the music can still sound great but beneath everyone’s awareness is the vibrational truth. Boredom leads to boredom.
But even contemporary classical music has been resurrected in recent years by individual artists who show great love and passion for what they are doing, still proving that if a person injects that part of themselves into the music, it is still possible to be popular. Popularity doesn’t depend exclusively on the monolithic promotion machine.
SC: Let’s go back: When your neighbor told you that the one album of all the music you gave him – Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – was the one that worked for him, did that change how you played or approached your music? Did that give you insights in how to explore your own music?
KW: Interestingly, we had just purchased a really nice house, and the first morning I woke up there, I felt like I had to have some music that went really well with the house. So I went out and bought a Pat Metheny record and I had it on the CD changer for a long time because it just felt good. Then one day, I decided to sit down and listen to it, and I realized he was playing the most burning solos – he was killing. But I hadn’t realized that because he mixes the album with the idea of not bashing you over the head with any one element. It was like a Trojan horse: even though there’s great music contained within, it was packaged in such a way that made the environment feel good as well.
Miles Davis knew how to do that. So, I started to think about that in terms of recording. Up to that point, a good amount of my records were live and the problem with live is that you are not trying to create an environment in a room like you would a studio album. Playing live, you are into that passion thing where you are vibrating with the audience. A live recording makes a less suitable ambient music CD.
Having come to that place where I recognized and understood why the jazz record industry was dying – I recorded a studio album I’m really proud of for Blue Note Records, one of the last ports in the storm. It’s called Lawn Chair Society and it really does fill the room with a story. Most people tell me that when they put it on, it doesn’t come off until after the last piece and that’s a real trip for me.
What are your thoughts?