Kenny Werner – Balloons – Live At The Blue Note – Half Note Records HN4546, 53:44 *****:
(Kenny Werner – piano; Randy Brecker – trumpet; David Sanchez – tenor saxophone; John Patitucci – bass; Antonio Sanchez – drums)
When Kenny Werner was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship Award in 2010, an extensive search for artistic expression came to fruition. The seminal compositional work, No Beginning, No End (his third release for Half Note Records – featuring Joe Lovano, Judy Silvano and a Wind Ensemble, Choir and String Quartet) brought an intriguing career to an exultant apex. This composition integrated seventy musicians into a musical exploration of life and death. Inspired by personal tragedy (the death of his daughter Katheryn in 2006), Werner was able to transcend the premise with verve and substance.
Like many jazz artists, his background was classical. However, the propensity for improvisation led him to the Berklee School of Music. In 1981 the Kenny Werner Trio was formed, recording four albums. A stint with the Mel Lewis Orchestra presented an opportunity to compose. He has played in a duo with Toots Thielemans and his arrangements for singer Betty Buckley (for small band and orchestra) are renowned. In 1996 Werner published Effortless Mastery – Liberating The Master Musician Within, a veritable thesis on improvisation.
Kenny Werner – Balloons encapsulates a unique musical vision. Recorded over two days at the legendary Blue Note, Werner and his quintet perform four extended original compositions. The material is diverse and sufficiently complex to allow exploration of melodic themes and improvisation with equal import. The opening track, “Sada” builds slowly with an ethereal piano lead and unison/harmony play on tenor and trumpet. Werner follows with a delicate solo that is full of lyrical imagery. David Sanchez coaxes a melancholic segue on tenor that offers a measured intensity that defines the piece. “Siena” continues the bop coloration as Randy Brecker shines with immaculate trumpet runs that animate the underlying tempo. The interplay in the ensemble is reminiscent of the early sixties work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
The title song is a nimble change of pace. Bridging the connection of jazz and classical, Werner constructs a complicated piano introduction that simultaneously utilizes droning chords and harmonic notation. The apparently dialectic structure weaves seamlessly into a crisp bass part by John Patatucci. Solos on trumpet and tenor are framed by the subtle tempo changes of drummer Antonio Sanchez. The final opus, “Class Dismissed” is overtly upbeat with creative drum work and scintillating piano improvisation. Werner excels in his role as band leader, bringing out the best in his sidemen. The sound quality is pristine, with studio-like acoustics. Balloons is an impressive, listenable gem.
TrackList: Sada; Siena; Balloons; Class Dismissed
— Robbie Gerson