Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Kenny Werner @ Killian Hall, MIT, 5/8/07

I was fortunate while at Eastman to take several masterclasses with Kenny Werner, who did residencies twice in my time there. One was about his approach to composition. He had this almost random system where he would generate a little pitch material and three or four ways of harmonizing it -at least two well beyond unconventional- and spin that into some kind of tune. (It was clear that he absolutely OWNED this technique, spinning coherent little numbers from seemingly nowhere like a genie spining gold from straw) I had yet to run into that level of (depending on your perspective) controlled chaos/heady "freedom", and while I never used the idea literally, it opened up some ideas for me as a composer.

I hadn't thought about these until I saw the first set of Kenny's solo concert at MIT. He opened with a tune that may or may not have been "Strangers in the Night"- I couldn't quite tell, repeating the first melodic gesture, often in octaves, over a sea of swirling arpeggios, clusters and rolling lines. Kenny seems (perhaps as a consequence of his little composition game) to have forty different ways to harmonize any note or line, and he used literally dozens of them. But because he's so fluent in this language he's created, even the most dissonant or unusual of them isn't too jarring.

In every way, the music was very dense. A Beatles medley of "Blackbird" and "Here Comes the Sun" alternated between a sort of gospel stride, 70s pop and dense post-bop harmonies. An arrangement of "All the Things You Are" lopped at least a section of the original form by cutting resolutions short and alternating between 3/4 and 5/4 that I figure out entirely. And I'm certain he didn't drop a beat the whole time. When I was 19, this Effortless Mastery, as Kenny famously called it in his book, blew my mind. Thirteen years later, I'm no less impressed, but nowhere near as moved. Kenny's touch, particularly melodically is very hard for my tastes, and sometimes I want the music to breathe- there's so much there to absorb. But I also wish I could do half of it...

Kenny was using the concert to celebrate his new Blue Note disc, Lawn Chair Society, a fascinating effort with Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, Scott Colley, Brian Blade, and Kenny and Lenny Pickett (yup, that one) doing programming. I'm listening to it now. More on it, and my two other pickups today, by Bjork and The Bad Plus, by week's end.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I've always been intrigued by Kenny's book and the fact that he's made his own cottage industry out of this approach and method, but I've never really been able to get into his playing and work. I don't dislike it, it's just never grabbed me.