You’ll know the real thing when you hear it

Monday, 6 July 2009 — 9:16pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Kenny Werner performed in Edmonton on Thursday with his touring quintet (Randy Brecker (trumpet), David Sanchez (tenor sax), Scott Colley (bass), Antonio Sanchez (drums)). I am pleased to say it was one of the most complete jazz concerts I’ve seen, full of vitality and character at every turn.

Let me put it this way. After Werner whistled along to his own piano outro at the tail end of his lovely, lovely composition, “Uncovered Heart”—which he introduced as the song he wrote on the day his daughter was born—my classical composer companion leaned over to me and whispered, “So I’ve decided on his behalf that he is going to have more children.”

In retrospect, were we unable to plead ignorance it would have been a callous remark. What Mr Werner did not tell us was that his beloved daughter had perished in a car accident two years earlier. I suppose he trusted the music to speak for itself—and it did.

The band played a set consisting mostly of originals from his 2007 album Lawn Chair Society (“New Amsterdam”, “Uncovered Heart”, “The 13th Day”), but in a wholly acoustic setting, plus an unrecorded tune (“Balloons”, a lilting piece that bobbed up and down in thirds) and John Williams’ signature melody for the Harry Potter films (“Hedwig’s Theme”).

One can go on forever about how jazz is the quintessentially American music, and nowhere is it more American than in its ideal of individual liberty as the wellspring of greater collective achievement. This was one of those bands where every musician was consistently interesting to listen to, yet never selfish. Brecker’s dizzying bebop lines were an ample foil for David Sanchez’s wide expressive sweeps, and Antonio Sanchez was a real listener who clearly thought in ideas much bigger than patterns and strokes. Colley was a discovery for me, particularly the way he used pizzicato bass to trace smooth legato shapes and do far more than walk. And of Werner’s facility for drawing singsong melodies out of the piano, the more said the better. Elsewhere he cites Joni Mitchell as his primary musical influence, and I believe him.

Werner’s quintet was current, situated in the here and now and doing something fresh, while staying within an accessible jazz aesthetic with traditional instrumentation. The funk-and-swing pastiche of “New Amsterdam” highlighted the continued richness of acoustic instruments in predominantly electric forms, and the screaming intensity of “Hedwig’s Theme” harked back, however distantly, to what John Coltrane did to “My Favorite Things” decades ago. (I don’t hear nearly enough John Williams in jazz: up to the 1960s the adaptation of iconic themes from contemporary cinema and Broadway productions was a matter of course, and one would think that Williams, the definitive composer of film music from 1970 to present, would elicit more widespread treatment.)

There’s plenty of good jazz in the world. But great jazz? You’ll know it when you hear it—and I heard it.

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