Shot by Isaac Gillespie. Edited by Cole Vultaggio.
Like pretty much everyone who has studied jazz since the mid-90s, I’ve been to a master classes led by Kenny Werner. The thing that stuck with me is when he would say, “You must hear every sound as a gift. It all sounds good.” Then he would lean his full weight onto the keyboard and the piano would bark out a cluster of notes and Kenny would turn with a beatific smile on his face and say “nectar… it’s all nectar.” And it’s true, in that moment you heard something sweet and true in that sound.
Kenny wrote the totemic book “Effortless Mastery,” so it’s not a surprise to see him mid musical phrase, looking almost absent minded as his fingers glide over the keyboard. He’ll reach over and mash a cluster of keys with his fist, or reach inside the piano to rest his hand on the strings (like he does at the beginning of “Tender Mercies”), but nothing seems forced or even forceful. Kenny takes huge swings—great giant leaps of intuition and risk. Yet it never sounds even slightly strained. You could set his piano on fire and, when Kenny played it, it wouldn’t look dangerous. I’ve seen him drag his hand slowly across the keys with his fingers limp, and I’ve seen him paw at the piano as if all of his fingers are fused together. And every time, there it is—nectar.
This band came together at Berklee School of Music where Kenny, Dave, Terri Lyne and the original bass player for this record, Esperanza Spalding, all teach. In a very impromptu forum session for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute the quartet got together and played a set of mostly free music. Kenny describes himself as a very responsive player:
My improvisations, even during my solo are principally going to be concerned with responding to the ideas the band is throwing at me. So I want to play with a band with great ideas! When I’m playing with a band that’s principally backing me up, that to me is boring and I’m doing all the work!
Playing at the forum, Kenny found himself playing sounds and ideas that he had never heard before. It was then that he knew he had to get this band into a studio.
In the studio, James Genus filled in for Esperanza due to an illness. But Kenny was delighted to be playing with James for the first time. “James is a master” says Kenny “and he set up everyone amazingly.”
I love the title of this record. There’s something mischievous and otherworldly in these compositions and instrumentation. Kenny slyly dropped in overdubbed Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3 Organ in surprising places. Single notes and sparse chords here and there that make the listener go “Did I just hear that?” The title track “Church on Mars,” has an ethereal quality but it didn’t yet have a title when it was recorded. Kenny heard it in playback, and at the very last moment decided it needed some Hammond B3 in the mix. “This is how they pray on Mars,” he said.
The record really gets spacey in the instrumental section of “Embraceable You.” Right where you think the bass and drums would start laying into the chord changes for the band to solo over, instead, the bottom drops out of the song and suddenly you’re looking down at the stars. Kenny told Dave, “Whatever note I play, you should play, a note that’s a major 7th or a minor 9th away.” These are arguably the two most dissonant or abrasive sounding intervals in western music. And yet…nectar.
– Elan Mehler
Kenny Werner | ©Anna Yatskevich
James Genus | ©Anna Yatskevich
Dave Liebman | ©Anna Yatskevich
Vivienne Aerts | ©Anna Yatskevich
James Genus, Terri Lyne Carrington, Kenny Werner & Dave Liebman | ©Anna Yatskevich