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Artist: Kenny Werner Trio + Hank Jones Trio
Performance date: January 22, 2005
Publication: Newark Star-Ledger
Three of a kind take playful approach Kenny Werner Trio

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Star-Ledger Staff

NEW YORK -- Joy and a sense of fun are among the aspects often cited by musicians for why they took up instruments. When one hears pianist Kenny Werner, that feeling of elation is clearly front and center.

Performing with bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Ari Hoenig, Werner's first set Wednesday at the Blue Note was the manifestation of an artist at work in a seriously playful manner. He and his partners, trio mates for five years, approached the songs with a child-like glee, altering some dramatically, making them fresh. It was an intriguing, often fascinating, process to observe.

Werner, 53, a former Watchung resident who resides in South Fallsburg, N.Y., dug in from the first tune, "If I Should Lose You." He shifted the nature of some of the chords switching some major chords to minor, for example giving the song a different shape, opening it up, making it feel new. Werner also fooled around with the tempo, going back and forth from medium to faster. Weidenmuller and Hoenig were right there with him, never missing a step. The way the three like-minded musicians segued so flexibly from one tempo to another playing, followed each other's thoughts, made the trio feel organic.

Because he's a melodic, song-like player whose ideas almost all had a tuneful ring, Werner's playful liberties with tempo and harmony did not make the rendition seem in the least bit strange or unapproachable. One fan was piano great Hank Jones, with whom Werner's trio is splitting sets at the Blue Note. Jones sat nearby, smiling as Werner played, obviously enjoying his explorations.

Dave Brubeck's jazz classic, "In Your Own Sweet Way," was another number Werner and company turned on its head to grand effect. The introduction was the set's only instance of the pianist's proclivity for free, structure-less playing. As he played a repeating figure in the right hand, then morphed it, opening it up, Weidenmuller and Hoenig found their own complementary thoughts.

When the musicians started into the song proper, Werner offered little glints of the theme as he quickly moved through different rhythmic moods. First the rendition was done as a fast waltz, then it went into a slower swing tempo, then the swing feeling was replaced by loose, open time. The song seemed as if it were being squeezed, then expanded, and so on, Werner's choice melodic nuggets dancing on top. "All the Things You Are" and "Nardis" were similarly treated.

Werner's "Jabali," dedicated to Montclair-based drum master Billy Hart, had a more straight-forward approach. Included on Werner's recent Half Note CD, "Peace" (recorded with Weidenmuller and Hoenig at the Blue Note), the appealing tune had a leisurely pace, as if the band were out on a stroll. Werner's ballad, "Lorraine," for his wife, was another highly lyrical number.

Weidenmuller and Hoenig both took solos that added juice to the music.

Jones, 86, played with his customary grace, fluidity, taste and swing. Appearing with bassist George Mraz and drummer Joe LaBarbera, the jazz master offered lush, sumptuous versions of a percolating "Stella by Starlight," a bustling "Rhythm-A-Ning" and J.J. Johnson's timeless ballad, "Lament."


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