Thursday, June 5, 2008

Soft Touches - Karel Boehlee and Kenny Werner

Piano is such an intriguing instrument. Not only can one pound the hell out of it, but it can also be played softly, almost caressingly, to a point that one wonders if it’s the same instrument.

Gene Less, the eminent Jazz story-teller, recounts a time when he and pianist Bill Evans walked into a club to catch a set by Oscar Peterson who could, and often did, play the piano very aggressively. During a lull in the performance, Gene turned to Bill and asked him why Oscar didn’t employ Bill’s method of voicing chords, an approach that could make Bill’s style understated and introspective in comparison to Oscar’s. Bill replied: “It wouldn’t fit with what he was doing.”

Since the piano doesn’t have a personality, one’s approach to the instrument may have more to do with a player’s own personality than the instrument itself.

Although Oscar Peterson could certainly play quiet ballads on the piano, he preferred to play it in a percussive manner often employing riotous tempos and the full orchestral range of the instrument through the use of highly accented and syncopated rhythmic riffs. At times it seemed that his style of piano trio Jazz could generate the intensity of an entire big band.

Indeed, there are a couple of example of recordings featuring Oscar with big bands in which Peterson gave the entire band a run for its money! Oscar, who at times could seem as big [both physically and in terms of his aura] as the piano itself, appears to have a personality that seeks out the instrument’s more percussive qualities, not to mention that, in Oscar’s case at least, employing 10 ‘fingers’ onto eighty-eight keys could generate many notes flying by at a very rapid pace.

When I’m in the mood for it, there’s nothing I like better than fastening my seat belt and letting Oscar transport me into a world of foot-stompin, finger-poppin’ and heart-pounding percussive piano trio Jazz excitement.

But there are times when I like to enjoy Jazz that unfolds slowly, quietly and very introspectively; the quiet moments made possible by pianist who display a softer touch, two of which I’d like to introduce you to in this Jazzprofiles feature: Karel Boehlee, whom you’ve probably never heard of and Kenny Werner whom you may have heard about.

They both favor the approach emphasized by pianist Bill Evans in his initial trio comprised of Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums in which there is a constant interplay between the instruments rather than the bass and drums playing time for the pianist to solo over with the bassist also framing the chords of the tune.

Boehlee’s and Werner’s penchant for sensitively played ballads also offer plenty of room for them to display their quite exquisite touch at the instrument. If you love the ringing sounds of the piano keys with all of their heard and implied overtones, both create piano sounds that are simply gorgeous.

There are, of course difference between them as Boehlee is very much a minimalist, playing sparingly with lots of space even in the up-tempo tunes, expressing many emotions with just enough notes.

Werner simply has an awesome technique that he unleashes in dazzling runs and counter-melodies played against the hands. Kenny also has the uncanny ability of making dissonance sound like a welcome departure rather than unpleasant noise. He handles both his considerable pianism and his intentional discord with a restraint that never overwhelms the music.

Although he has been playing professional for about twenty-five years, Karel Boehlee is perhaps Holland's best-kept Jazz secret. The following comments about Boehlee were offered in an interview with Karel’s bassist, Hein van de Geyn, who is also the owner of Challenge Records:

"I remember hearing him play in the early eighties, when I just returned from the United States. He was the first pianist of this kind of modern class I had ever heard in Holland. And on what level! Over the years Karel has improved and improved. The lines became more thoughtful, the harmony more precise; the rhythm was always very strong, but became larger, more in the pocket. Yet underneath all these ingredients there was always something more powerful: the sound! Karel's sound is unique; his touch just seems to reach you right in the centre of where music enters the soul. With impeccable taste Karel will always come up with something fresh, something his own and makes it sound so good."

Hein had this to say when asked why Karel is such a well kept secret or why is it that so few people in the Jazz world know about him.

Karel is a real player; he simply loves to go out and play. He will play with his old pals in little cafés, he will play with young and upcoming musicians, he will play with the best pop singers. Karel is a musician at heart. And the business doesn't know how to deal with this. The business wants exclusivity, wants to put a label on someone, wants an image. And somehow Karel is not playing that game. He is not chasing record deals; he is not showing his face at the right spots at the right time, he doesn't search for journalists to do interviews with him. He is busy doing what a musician should do: play music!

And more from Hein in his insert notes to Karel Boehlee At the Beauforthuis, an album that he produced for his Challenge label [70133]:

“On top of being a pianist, Karel is a very original composer as well. Over the years he has written quite a large repertoire of strongly individual originals. And I must say that it is through his original compositions that I hear most clearly what Karel wants to portray. To put it in words is not easy, so it seemed best to me to record it on my label, and share my enthusiasm with the listeners in this way. Our pal [drummer] Hans van Oosterhout was excited as well and so we found a few free dates in our calendars. Lidwien Vork, the wonderful owner of the Beauforthuis in Austerlitz, was more than hospitable to have us come and record at her place. We recorded in the daytime, and invited some people as an audience at night. Chris Weeda was our more than capable engineer. I must say I am happy, more than happy to present to you the musical world of one of my favorite pianists: Karel Boehlee. Enjoy! Hein van Geyn”

Perhaps it takes people with a broader outlook to recognize Karel's sublimity. People like Mikoto Kimata, the owner of M&I records based in Tokyo who has recorded seven CD's by Karel for his Japanese label; roughly at a pace of one album a year.

And while Karel Boehlee is largely unknown outside The Netherlands, he is well-known and very popular in Japan and, it seems, his CDs continue to captivate the Japanese fans. Perhaps one of the reason for his popularity there is that he was the founding member of the anonymous-sounding European Jazz Trio, which helped ignite the "European jazz boom" in Japan nearly two decades ago.

Hajime Sato, had this to offer in his review of one of the Karel Boehlee’s M&I CDs featured for sale on his website –

“A recent release on the M&I label in which the mood is definitely blue and pensive in Blue Prelude, his fourth CD released from M&I. The eclectic program includes Bing Crosby's hit song from 1933 ("Blue Prelude"), a song from an Italian movie ("Che Voule Questa Musika Stasera") and the theme music from the 1956 American movie with Ingrid Bergman ("Anastasia").

Boehlee never tries to fill the space with notes, and his romanticism never steeps down to raw sentimentality.The rhythm section supports and complements Boehlee perfectly. The recorded sound -- from the woody tone of the bass to the delicate sounds of various cymbals stroked by brushes -- is also excellent. If you have a good audio system, you'll be amazed. Very highly recommended.”

Mention might also be made of three of the remaining six albums by Karel Boehlee on M&I:

[1] Last Tango in Paris[MYCJ-30404] –

[2] Dear Old Stockholm [MYCJ–30275] -

[3] Midnight Blue [MYCJ-30443]

You can also hear Karel with “another voice” as he is the pianist in Dutch guitarist Martijn van Iterson’s Quartet on two Munich Jazz releases soon to be reviewed in another “Jazz in Holland” Jazzprofiles segment focusing on van Iterson and guitarist Jesse van Ruller. Kenny Werner was a child prodigy on piano who understood at a young age that he needed to set his own direction on the instrument. As he shared with Terry Perkins in an interview for [paragraphing modified]

“Very early in my musical career, I realized that to be an interpreter of an established art form was meaningless for me and this includes the jazz tradition as well: both get in the way of the creative process. …. [They] are not powerful things to build my life on.

Connecting that inner urge to express myself with the sounds I make is the key, and building on that makes me powerful. That’s the connection that makes all great musicians powerful.

I realized that although I could play classical music, I really had no passion for it. So [I abandoned my classical studies at the Manhattan School of Music] and went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston not because it was just, but because I wanted to improvise. And improvisation, of course, is the language of Jazz. By the time I left Berklee, I was recycled as a jazz artist.”

While he was at Berklee, Werner first began to evolve a softer touch at piano from the teachings of Madame Chaloff with their emphasis on breathing as a source of energy for performance and a mechanism for relaxation. As Larry Kelp points out in his inserts notes to Werner’s Maybeck Hall Recital CD, about which more later:
“Madame Chaloff … served as a spiritual guide, giving him a vision of himself not as a virtuoso performer, but as a vehicle for the music to flow through.”

A highly respected piano teacher, Madame Chaloff had tutored pianists such as Steve Kuhn, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett and she also schooled Werner in what was known as the “Russian Technique.” Using this method, Werner was to develop unique tone production and keyboard dynamics that enabled him to make the piano’s lower register hum like a string bass and its upper register have the bell-like quality of ringing chimes.

In a July ,2007 interview with Ralph A. Miriello, Steve Kuhn demonstrated and described the “Russian School of Technique:”

“You center yourself on the keyboard….you let your arms hang loose so that there is no weight at all, you have curvature at your hands so you don’t play flat fingered and then its all about the sound you want.” His absorption of this technique has served him well, as he is able to summon all the power as well as the nuances of this instrument with his extraordinary control. He explains, while seated at his piano, how you gauge the power of the sound you want from the instrument by visualizing how far down into and through your body you want the sound to emanate from. “(Coming down from) the toes being the loudest….the first digit of your finger being the quietest.” He explains further “…which is like playing a horn, the analogy being the fingertip being your mouth and the key being the mouthpiece of the horn.” I [Miriello] likened it to the act of consciously sending breath through the whole of your body during meditation, to which he readily agrees. “It’s all about getting the sound from the piano that you should get and allowing the sound to flow from your body.”

Werner described Madam Chaloff in the interview with Terry Perkins as “…my Yoda in a way…. I had always sensed there was a connection between spiritual things and expression, between your life and your playing. I learned from her that the spiritual search could become one with the search for the music.”

There soon followed another development that influenced Werner’s introspective piano style. Through a friend, he became involved in a therapy that emphasized overcoming anxiety in his approach to musical expression, or as he described it in the Perkins interview:

“It was the next piece of the puzzle. I realized that a person’s mind, their neuroses and angst, blocked the obvious steps they need to take to improve their expression. And then it made sense to me that I really had my own voice in music from the beginning ….”

All of these influences – the Russian technique, the anxiety therapy, the subjective introspection – combined to produce a Werner approach to Jazz piano that is marked by a quiet, consistent search for artistic expression.

Perhaps the best example of all these influences and all these stylistic characteristics at work in Werner’s playing can be found in the solo piano album that as Volume 34 of the Maybeck Recital Hall Series [Concord CCD-4622].

In his insert notes, Larry Kelp relays the following remarks by Werner about this performance :

"I try to prepare for whatever comes through me. The purpose of this concert is to get to what I call an ecstatic space."

Kelp’s notes continue with a reference to the Werner original Roberta Moon as “[a] wispy, lighter-than air opener, [essentially] a spontaneous improvisation…,” about which Werner had this to say:

“This is my standard way to open a concert. I just start playing to get the flow going, on the way to that ecstatic state later. I try to eliminate my own thoughts, just put my hands on the keys, and look at them as if they aren’t mine, let them play and see what comes out, hopefully something to entertain my spirit. One chord or note suggests the next.”

Richard S. Ginell at provided this succinct synopsis of the Maybeck concert:

“Kenny Werner's Maybeck recital, volume 34 in the series, wanders even more freely and unpredictably than most, establishing his footing somewhere just outside the periphery of mainstream solo piano. A neo-romantic, free-associative spirit pervades these excursions, which sometimes end up in surprising places. The opening "Roberta Moon" roams in an almost new age-like manner until it reaches a streak of high velocity, while "Someday My Prince Will Come" is more boppish, with some nice abrupt transitions. An attractive voyage through "In Your Own Sweet Way" moves through "Jeepers Creepers," a snatch of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," and finally ends up at the door of "Naima." The way he gets around "Try to Remember" before breaking playfully into "St. Thomas" is especially interesting. A most attractive entry in the long Maybeck line.”

More about the softer touch of Kenny Werner is reflected from the following quotation drawn from [2008 press release on Kenny Werner’s website]:

Watching Kenny Werner work can be deceptive. While he’s making his way through a jazz number, the 56-year old pianist almost seems disinterested in what he’s doing. Not for him scowls, frowns and corporeal contortions of the likes of fellow ivory ticklers Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau.

Instead, Werner hardly looks at the keyboard and the flurries and chords seems to emanate out of the end of his fingers almost without intent. The man is the essence of uncontrived cool.

He approaches his craft with consummate ease. ‘There should always be a deep connection between yourself and the sound your are producing. You should always be moving, looking for the areas you like, and moving intuitively. … I can hear when a musician is not moving intuitively and when they are thinking about their style. You need to have tremendous skill to play naturally.’”

Kenny’s very personal approach to the piano trio Jazz format is best represented in Live at Visiones [Concord CCD-4675], a 1995 CD he made with his associates in long-standing, bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Tom Rainey. The trio had been together for 15 years at the time of this recording. This CD is nothing less than a spectacular example of how piano-bass-drums interplay can usher into a variety of standards and well-known Jazz classics fresh nuances, subtleties and moods of quietude and contemplation. You have to listen closely as there is so much going on but the reward for doing so is the immeasurable satisfaction at having heard these old tunes played in a new way.
Alex Henderson offered the following review of the album in

One of the admirable things about Kenny Werner is his willingness to enter a variety of jazz situations. Joined by bassist
Ratzo Harris and drummer Tom Rainey, Werner interprets Chick Corea's "Windows," John Coltrane's "Blue Trane," Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" and other well known pieces. But don't think this album is an example of the same old standards being played the same old way — Werner provides his share of interesting twists and turns and keeps things from becoming predictable. Werner takes chances with these standards, making Live at Visiones a CD that is fairly fresh sounding.”

Upon visiting his website – – you will find more two dozen CDs with Kenny as leader including a live duet recording that he made, once again at Maybeck Hall, with one of today’s superb young reedmen – Chris Potter [Concord CCD-4695].

and Naked in the Cosmos [Jazz ‘N Pulz 42451-53982] a superb recording that he made with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra that features his big band compositions.

Aristotle once noted: “How different we all are with regard to those things we hold in common.” The wonderful thing about Jazz is that it communicates itself to us in so many different ways. The wonderful thing about the Jazz piano of Karel Boehlee and Kenny Werner is how quietly and almost unsuspectingly their music can overwhelm us with its beauty and its majesty.

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