For two nights in June 2011, Kenny Werner performed a rare solo piano gig at the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival. While Werner, one of jazz’s most renowned improvising pianists, never planned to document the event, the sets were recorded – which has resulted in the sublime album Me, Myself & I on Justin Time Records. Writing in the liner notes, Werner reflects that the seven-track project “just might be the best piano playing I have done on record. And I mean that from all aspects including creativity and flow.” The repertoire of long-form journey music of unexpected turns and vistas ranges from such jazz standards as “‘Round Midnight,” “Blue in Green” and “Giants Steps,” to Joni Mitchell’s classic “I Had a King” and the pianist’s own gem, “Balloons.”
Even though Werner prefers playing and interacting with a band, he signed on to do the solo show as well as agreed to have the four sets be recorded after receiving an email request from John Klepko, a Canadian recording engineer. It turns out that the shows were not only a hit with the audience, but also, in Werner’s own estimation, represented one of the freshest, most fluid performances of his career. “Usually when I play a great set some place, I always think, ‘Geez, I wish someone was recording this,’” he says. “In this case, I knew the shows were recorded, but I didn’t know what the sound quality was like-and also sometimes I think I’ve played great only to hear it back and realize that I overplayed. But for these shows, I had a hunch.”
Werner talked to club owner Joel Giberovitch about the recordings, and he told the pianist that Jim West of Justin Time had already heard Klepko’s tapes and expressed interest in releasing an album of the solo performances. Werner was excited, but wanted to hear the music himself. “The older you get, the more discriminating you become over having control of the music you record,” Werner says. “My standards are so much higher than what they used to be.” However, upon listening to the taped performances, he realized that what took place those nights was very special.
In the liners to Me, Myself & I, Werner writes: “So we have a happy confluence of elements here: a well-oiled pianist, an exceptional engineer, a club owner who really loves the music and a record producer who also gives it up for the music. Put that all together and…you have one of my best offerings.”
Werner will be the first person to admit that in the early days of his career he didn’t practice much. But prior to Montreal’s festival, he was preparing to work on a concerto in Denmark for alto saxophone and piano written by Danish composer Anders Koppel. “I started to practice as never before,” Werner says. “The plain fact was that I wasn’t at all sure if I could even play this [composition]. But in attempting to play it, it inadvertently brought my chops and fluidity up to high levels.” As a result, he says, the Montreal shows freed him up to the point where his creativity blossomed. As he notes, “For those two nights, the ideas just kept flowing.”
Quincy Jones has said of Werner: “Perfection. 360 degrees of soul and science in one human being. My kind of musician.” On Me, Myself & I, Werner brilliantly manifests that “soul and science” throughout, whether it’s taking flights of improvisation from dark mystery to whimsical joy on “‘Round Midnight” or ruminating on the beautiful Thad Jones tune, “A Child Is Born.” He hints at melodies, then travels through his imagination with a freedom to follow the muse.
“Those nights it was pure imagination,” says Werner, when talking about playing “‘Round Midnight.” “I was feeling the fun of playing these tunes that I know so well. The longer you’ve played a tune in your life, the more you enter into a fantasy where you play further and further away from the melody. Journey is at the heart of what I was doing those nights. In the case of ‘Round Midnight,’ I took the general shape but played it atonally to give it a surreal feel.”
Swinging and lyrical but then melancholic, “Balloons” is an original that dates back to the mid-’90s. And it is literally inspired by the life and death of helium balloons. “My daughter was young at the time, and my wife would get her balloons for her birthday,” Werner explains. “They were all over the house. At first they’d float and touch the ceiling, but then after a week or so, they’d slowly come down until they ended up being six inches off the ground. So the tune is like a joke in ways. It’s a balloon from the party to its end.”
One of the shorter tracks on the album is the classic “All the Things You Are” that takes off like a sprightly dance. “There’s an unusual motion to the tune,” Werner says. “It’s humorous but also has a classical feel. It’s concise but ends with a surprise.”
As for “Blue in Green,” Werner feels so comfortable with the tune that he can play it out with an impassioned breadth. “The tune itself is short,” he says, “but it lends itself to opening up panels to go to another place and eventually return.” With “Giant Steps,” Werner deals with the complex form of the composition by roaming widely. “I was in such good shape pianistically that I had a rowdy time with it and I felt freer to move. If I hadn’t been in such good shape, I would have been stressed playing it.” “A Child Is Born” is not only Werner’s wife’s favorite song, but it’s also a tune that he says “never fails to help me reach deep emotion. Again, I was in good piano shape so I was able to take parts of the tune and use them to travel to other continents. It’s like you open a door and you go into another world with other colors.”
Werner has been playing Mitchell’s “I Had a King,” a song from her early folk era, for a long time. “It’s a masterpiece,” Werner says. “It’s another song that I’m emotionally connected to. Joni is one of my favorite artists of all time. She is the Babe Ruth of folk. I’ve played this solo before, but never recorded it.”
While all four sets of his Upstairs Jazz performances were recorded, Werner says that most of the songs on the album come from the first set on the first night. “That’s also what makes this album special,” he says. “There’s a freshness.” As for being in such good piano shape, he adds in the liners, “Technique has a great value in creating. It’s not the display of technique itself, which for me was never a compelling message. Rather it’s how the technique clears all the brush, so to speak, between the player and his instrument, leaving a completely clear playing field.”