This magical trio session came about purely through an act of
serendipity; another of those accidental fortunate discoveries that has
marked Kenny Werner's musical path since the late '70s.
Kenny was in the studio with drummer Joey Baron and Marc Johnson, working on another project entirely. They had booked two days at Avatar Studios in midtown Manhattan to record music by European composer Myriam Alter, but things were going so well that they had actually finished the project in one day. After talking it over, they decided to use the second day to further explore their unique chemistry as a trio, just letting tape roll as they played freely on familiar tunes and wide open improvisations. This liberated approach to recording resulted in some three hours of highly charged, harmonically and rhythmically daring music that pushes the envelope on discovery. With the pressures and expectations of record company intervention lifted, these three kindred spirits were free to follow the muse... The Church Of The Spark, as Kenny calls it. And they did so with impunity.
As a piece, Unprotected Music , comes across as more adventurous and probing, more provocative and ultimately rewarding than Werner's recent RCA/Victor release, A Delicate Balance . That 1998 recording with the great rhythm tandem of Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland was certainly a brilliant showcase of Kenny's compositions and his mercurial touch on the keyboard, as well as yet another prime example of DeJohnette's forceful pulse alongside Holland's flawless sense of time. But while that session thoughtfully straddled the faultline between swing and free (the delicate balance that Werner sought), Unprotected Music falls more into the free camp; as in free to express oneself in the moment with absolutely no inhibitions and by any means necessary.
A seasoned, searching artist, Werner has played and recorded with a veritable Who's Who in jazz, including Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, the Mel Lewis Orchestra, Joe Lovano, Randy Brecker, Lee Konitz, John Scofield and the Cologne Radio Jazz Orchestra. His spiritual journey from frightened students at the Berklee School of Music to enlightened educator is detailed in his fascinating and rather revealing tome, Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musicians Within (Jamey Aebersold Jazz Publications). A kind of self-help book for musicians learning to overcome fears and insecurities by tapping into their own higher innerselves, Effortless Mastery has been the source for an ongoing lecture/clinic series that Werner has conducted at colleges, conservatories and conventions all over the world. And clearly, judging from the liberated nature of this session, Kenny practices what he preaches.
One of the more consistently creative and intensely musical drummers around, Joey Baron is always full of surprises and never shy about swinging. His early apprenticeship with Carmen McRae taught him about the art of accompaniment while he tightened up on his swing factor in the company of Jim Hall and Pat Martino. His musical vocabularly opened up considerably after joining Bill Frisell's group in the late '80s. He has since recorded with a wide variety of artists, including guitarist John Scofield, harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, vibraphonist Gary Burton and saxophonist Tim Berne. He has played and recorded in a number of settings instigated by composer-conceptualist John Zorn, including surf-punk-jazz band Naked City, the hardcore thrash Ornette tribute band Spy vs. Spy and Zorn's latest acoustic quartet, Masada. Joey also leads his own unorthodox trio, Barondown, with tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin & trombonist Steve Swell.
Marc Johnson came of age, so to speak, in the last Bill Evans trio (1978-1980). As he told me for a Jazz Times interview: "As a student at North Texas State University, I only ever wanted to play with Bill Evans. It's a fantasy you have as a young bass player. If you wanted to play in a trio context, that was the gig to get." Johnson's lengthy list of credits include recordings with guitarist John Abercrombie, Argentine bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi, pianist Joanne Brackeen, saxophonist Lee Konitz, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias. In 1985, he formed Bass Desires with drummer Peter Erskine and the two-guitar frontline of Frisell and Scofield. They had two intriguing and critically acclaimed releases on ECM. In 1991, Johnson led an unorthodox trio with guitarist Ben Monder and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian called Right Brain Patrol, which debuted on the upstart JMT label. His latest as a leader and debut for Verve, The Sound of Summer Running, is a summit meeting guitarists Frisell and Pat Metheny and drummer Baron.
Werner/Johnson/Baron strike an immediate rapport on Unprotected Music, conjuring up immediate comparisons to a number of other remarkably open-ended, swinging piano trios (Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea/Miroslav Vitous/Roy Haynes, Paul Bley/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian).
On the opening piano-drums duet, "Displivet," Kenny and Joey establish an ebullient chemistry. Werner toys with Middle Eastern motifs in the midst of sing-songy lines while Baron's briskly swinging touch on the ride cymbal recalls Billy Higgins highly interactive work with Ornette Coleman. The pianist shows his capacity for great tenderness on the introspective "Dark" as Baron lends a sparse, coloristic approach to the proceedings. "Prelude to a Tribute" is an all-out swinger with Johnson's forceful basslines propelling the music ever-forward. Baron sizzles and cuts up the beat on this loose, open-ended romp, like a Roy Haynes behind Johnson's fabulous solo. This smoldering piece segues neatly into "Tribute to Sonny," a calypso flavored offering that brings to mind Sonny Rollins' perpetual set-closer, "Don't Stop The Carnival" or Sonny's other signature piece, "St. Thomas."
"Hell Realm" opens with a flailing duet between bassist Johnson and drummer Baron. Marc pedals frantically while Joey traverses the kit emphatically. Kenny enters with angular, staccato stabs at the keyboard before segueing smoothly to "Greensleeves;" an introspective take on an old Christmas classic, underscored by Baron's sensitive brushwork.
They open up the floodgates of creativity on "Eighth Grove," a wide-open, swinging romp that showcases Werner's impressive chops and intuitive daring. The intimate ballad "Vague Wanderings" brings out some of Kenny's most lyrical playing, marked by a zen-like use of space. And on the bouncing, Ahmad Jamal-ish "Luv," Baron plays his kit sans sticks, using his bare hands on the drum heads for a convincing bongo effect.
They start the standard "All Right With Me" at a blistering pace with Johnson furiously walking his bass while Baron sizzles and slashes the ride cymbal. Werner, who had been laying out during this opening fusillade, enters with pent-up emotion and startling facility. At the three-minute mark, a Baron cymbal crash cues the switchover to some loping, mid tempo swing, a la the Wynton Kelly trio.
Johnson contributes an extended and introspective "Bass Solo" before the band launches into the quirky "Good Luck Horror." At some point, Baron starts playing the drum shells, which triggers a giddy response on the piano from Werner. And they end this musical adventure on a somber note with the haunting tango "Silent Walk," featuring another bold solo by Marc.
Only a couple of tunes on Kenny Werner's A Delicate Balance allude to the kind of freedom, dark beauty and sheer joy that we hear here. Granted, the stakes might have been higher for a major label debut, which may have necessitated a tighter grip on the reins. But this time out, it's more about the spirit of comraderie among three sensitive, listening, intuitive musicians who like to play together. "Play" is the watchword for Unprotected Music .
Bill Milkowski/Jazz Times magazine