Even the best known jazz pianists face some resistance when looking for work with a trio. I hear it from club owners all the time, audiences want to hear groups with horns, and attendance often drops when a pianist hits town without a saxophonist or trumpeter in tow.
Pianist Kenny Werner can empathize with those sensation-seeking clubgoers. Best known in recent years as harmonica legend Toots Thielemans’s creative foil, he performs on Friday at the Jazz & Blues Company with his extraordinary trio featuring bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Ari Hoenig.
“Most piano trios are not really exciting groups to watch,” says Werner, 53. “They may be led by a great piano player, but too often a bass player and drummer are just following a pianist around the dance floor. The thing that I can listen to again and again is a group concept, something that feels almost composed.”
One of jazz’s most fearlessly creative pianists, Werner has a long track record of transforming the standard trio format of piano, bass and drums into a vehicle for group improvisation that is anything but standard. His gift for creating unexpected melodic lines and challenging harmonic connections has made him one of the most sought-after accompanists.
Since the mid-1970s, he’s performed and recorded with an array of jazz giants, including Archie Shepp, Lee Konitz, John Abercrombie, Joe Henderson, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. It’s as the leader of his own trio, however, that he’s made his most profound mark. His combo with bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Tom Rainey set a daunting standard for structured group interplay during its 14-year run, delivering a breathtaking valedictory statement with its last recording, 1995’s “Live at Visiones” (Concord Jazz).
He was looking for the same kind of combustible chemistry when he met Weidenmueller and Hoenig in the mid-90s. At the time, Werner was working with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Billy Hart, but when they were unavailable for a European tour, he hired Weidenmueller and Hoenig. Within a few days, Werner knew he had found musicians who could make his intricate music sound urgent but relaxed, like a fast flowing conversation between intimate friends.
“I write music that’s tricky but, if you play it right, it doesn’t sound hard at all, it sounds surreal,” Werner says. “In order for it to take surprising twists and turns, there has to be some tricky stuff in it, but if it’s not negotiated with ease, then there’s no point. I want guys who have some rhythmic stuff that I can’t do. Ratzo and Tom were like that, and Ari and Johannes are like that.”
Werner’s trio performed at the 2003 Montreal Jazz Festival, where they played the most memorable set out of more than 20 performances by some of jazz’ most illustrious stars. Acting as a rhythmic instigator, Hoenig, a Philadelphia native in his late 20s, provided a constant flow of trap set commentary. The German-born Weidenmueller, in his late 30s, mediated between the pianist and drummer’s sudden temporal shifts with an elastic pulse. The trio seemed to breathe as one, even as each player asserted his own personality.
“They’re both total musicians,” Werner says. “Johannes doesn’t write that many tunes, but we play a couple of his arrangements of standards that are just brilliant. Ari is not only a cutting edge rhythmic player, he’s always melodic. You get the feeling he’s got the song in his head, and he brings me new ideas. That’s what keeps me fresh.”