By Anita Malhotra
Brooklyn-born jazz pianist, composer and educator Kenny Werner studied piano at the Manhattan School of Music and jazz improvisation at the Berklee Institute. Greatly influenced by the Boston piano teacher Madame Chaloff and the Brazilian concert pianist Joao Assis Brasil, he developed a paradigm-shifting approach to performance that led to the publication in 1995 of his best-selling book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within.
As a performer, Werner has appeared extensively throughout North America and Europe. He has also composed many works for small ensembles and orchestra, and received the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship Award for his orchestral piece No Beginning, No End. Werner recently became artistic director of Berklee’s Effortless Mastery Institute (formerly the Performance Wellness Institute), which helps students develop and maintain healthy performances practices.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Kenny Werner, who lives in Monticello, New York, by telephone on June 13, 2015, a week before his performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.
AM: You just came back from Europe. What were you up to there?
KW: I was playing in different configurations with someone who in the last seven years has become a very deep music partner of mine – Benjamin Koppel. He’s a brilliant alto player and composer, and his whole family is a kind of royal musical family in Denmark. So we just spent about two weeks doing about five or six countries – Denmark, Spain, Germany, France and Austria – some duo, and some with rhythm section.
AM: What is it about playing with him that is so satisfying?
KW: Well, it’s the same thing that makes it special playing in my trio. It’s the conversation back and forth, arranging freer improvisations to such a degree of clarity in the interaction that you could almost say it was composition being written down at that very moment.
AM: What kind of material will you be doing in your upcoming performance in Ottawa, and who will you be playing with?
KW: Well, Ari Hoenig and Johannes Weidenmüller, who are the trio I’ve had for 15 years. Ari Hoenig is a brilliant composer and drummer in his own right. Johannes is the egoless one – the one that helps us keep the shape of the music. And we’ve just released our first CD in eight years called The Melody. And I think it just really shows the maturity of the trio. So we’ll be playing things from that, some of my originals, some standards that we have our own take on.
AM: What got you into music, and in particular the piano?
KW: Just going to a friend’s birthday party when I was seven years old. His father played their upright piano at the party, and I’d seen them on television but I’d never one played live. And I was mesmerized. I was sitting right next to the piano and I ran home and told my parents, “Get me a piano.” Then I showed a lot of natural talent for it, meaning I didn’t work very hard at it, but I could sort of play anything I heard. And that, at that age, distinguished me from others, so it started to become a passport towards being special at something.
AM: You’ve talked about your two biggest influences being a teacher named Madame Chaloff and a pianist named Joao Assis Brasil. Can you summarize how these two people influenced you?
KW: Madame Chaloff was a legendary teacher in Boston. When I went to Berklee I heard about her, and I always had a spiritual yearning, as many artists do. Typically, I pursued it in a lot of the wrong ways, trying to find that sweet spot where everything is light. That can get you in trouble or it can take you all the way to the divine source. When I met Madame Chaloff she united the whole idea of the divinity inside me – how I held myself in my state of consciousness – being directly connected to how I would play a note. So she connected the mystical with the actual act of playing.
Joao was a classical pianist who had been entering and winning European competitions in Brazil, and he had a nervous breakdown. One of the things he worked on with his therapist was something that would sound kind of insipid today, but back then it was kind of profound. Whenever he felt that tension, that expectation, that need to be whatever, he would say, “I must be kind to myself.”
This was a guy that could play the piano effortlessly but on such a high technical level that I couldn’t even understand it. He proceeded to show me a five-finger exercise of just dropping your fingers on the keys without pushing them and without expectation, and then do that and just walk away. And he had me do nothing but that for two weeks.
After six days I played hooky and went to play piano at this woman’s party. When we played the first tune, which was Autumn Leaves, I put my hands on the piano and they played by themselves. And everything I was playing was better than anything I usually play. In other words, a bottleneck had been removed – the bottleneck was the tension of me trying to sound good. And the other flipped-out part of it – almost like having a psychedelic experience – was I was just watching these fingers move with perfect intelligence about only what they needed to do.
That was so superior to anything I’d ever experienced that, from that day on, I’ve simply been about that. That led to my own exploration on the subject, which eventually became, as a teacher, four steps in achieving effortless mastery.
AM: In your book Effortless Mastery you write about how the mind or the ego is the enemy of the musician. Can you explain that?
KW: There are very successful musicians that trip out very, very successfully on their ego. So it’s not like every good player is egoless. There’s the ego of hearing yourself and knowing, “Man, I’m a really bad cat, and I hope you guys are digging the music.” But when the ego gets between you and the act of playing – in other words, before you play, you go, “Man, I’ve got to really sound good now, or else I don’t have as much value as a human being” – what always happens? And that opens up the idea of steps of how to reprogram the mind so that putting the hands on the instrument will cause an expansion of the mind of joy, not a contraction into responsibility.
AM: Recently, you were hired as artistic director of what the Effortless Mastery Institute at Berklee. How did that come about?
KW: All these years I’ve been known more for the author of Effortless Mastery than I have for playing. There are people who have this book all over the world. So the book has a fame that extends way beyond my personal fame as a musician. Up until a few years ago I let the book do its work and I’m getting all these incredible messages from people that the book changed their lives. But it’s not something I chose to do. It’s something that just kind of came through me.
But when I started to do it I found I had a really unusual talent for teaching and explaining the phenomenon that we feel when we see great players. So that’s how the Effortless Mastery Institute started. I just emailed Roger Brown, the president of Berklee, and said, “Hey, I don’t know if you’re interested in this, but I’ve had an epiphany. I want to embrace the author, lecturer, teacher side of myself more and actively promote it the way I’ve been promoting my music all these years. And he wrote me right back and said, “We’d love to have you here. I was almost gonna quit music and I read your book.” I get that all the time.
AM: What are some other highlights of your career?
KW: Well, in most recent years many very profound experiences with Toots Thielemans playing duo. Toots allows me to play from the heart, and I’ve had some really profound experiences with him. I’ve had some profound experiences with things I’ve composed, like for the Brussels Jazz Orchestra or for a couple of European orchestras. The most profound thing was the piece I wrote in 2007 called No Beginning, No End, which is a wind ensemble piece with great emotional content to it. And having that performed and recorded was definitely a highlight.
I’ve had countless gigs with this trio that I’m bringing up to Ottawa, where we were in such a high space that the music was like music that was being written down at that very moment. It’s hard to say highlights in terms of performance because I get out of the way and the performance happens. And so probably the most profound performance that I’ve been part of I wasn’t there.
Kenny Werner performs at the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 20, 2015. For more information on Kenny Werner and his music, please visit kennywerner.com.