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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Kenny Werner: Lawn Chair Society


Piano trio enthusiasts are likely familiar with (and fond of) Kenny Werner's trio excursions with Ratzo Harris and Tom Rainey, or recently, Johannes Weidenmuller and Ari Hoenig, but it's great to see Werner in different settings. He's recorded with a quintet before, but Lawn Chair Society, his first outing on Blue Note, truly sports an "all-star" cast: trumpeter Dave Douglas, reedman Chris Potter, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade. The album incorporates some electronics, which may sound a bit startling at first pass, but the effects generally color the performance once the listener gets deeper into the tunes. In a press release, Werner says, "I knew I didn’t want to make a record that was purely acoustic or purely electronic. I wanted to blur the lines and create something a little bit surreal." Dig the fitting Magritte-inspired album cover.

"New Amsterdam" opens with some grunts and warbly keyboard riffs before giving way to a jazzy JB with a signature Blade groove. Potter isn't afraid to get dirty here. Douglas's solo is bright but also lets a lot of light in -- and Werner artfully uses the spaces. "Uncovered Heart" has a bit of a history. Not only has it appeared on a Sunnyside release by the same name, but it was also written on the day his daughter Katheryn was born. He'd already decided to re-record the piece when, in a tragic turn of events, she died in an auto accident last October. The composition clearly has poignant associations, and Colley's solo is respectful and emotive. Werner himself takes flight here.

"The 13th Day" has plenty of the fluid playing Werner's audience recognizes. His chops are obvious, but his ideas unfold naturally. Upon hearing Colley's full tone and Blade's papery, peppery textures in conversation our hero's playing, it's clear this is a highly empathetic -- and intuitive -- trio. Another standout piece, "Kothbiro," is actually the closing theme to
The Constant Gardener." Douglas and Potter trade some beautiful melodic gestures after a reverent, cascading piano solo.

The track "Lawn Chairs (and Other Foreign Policy)" Werner says, "is a comment on American culture that is living in its own unreal world, yet completely unaware of the desolation and darkness that half the world is experiencing." Appropriately, Werner's solo is spare and shadowy, while Potter's solo is both graceful and slightly sinister. Alongside other song titles like "Inaugural Balls," his political commentary becomes visible, but Lawn Chair Society isn't built on a concept -- just strong playing. Werner himself hates the notion of "themes" as marketing devices. He wrote this in an article for the Fall 2005 issue of Jazz Improv:
Have you noticed that there always has to be a theme?... Why, for God's sake, can't we say anymore, "The Music of (fill in the name of the artist who's actually playing on the CD)"? Isn't the music of thinking, feeling, brilliant jazz artists living at this moment something we want to honor?
No matter how you like your electronics or your political-musical messages, Lawn Chair Society is a strong, modern, melodic album. And obviously, it could be subtitled "The Music of Kenny Werner."

Lawn Chair Society (Blue Note)
Kenny Werner (p, kbds, comp)
Dave Douglas (tp, c)
Chris Potter (ts, bcl)
Lenny Pickett (wooden fl)
Scott Colley (b)
Brian Blade (d)

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