After one tune in his Tuesday night solo performance at Upstairs, pianist Kenny Werner paused, gestured at the empty stage and joked that he’d like to introduce the members of the band. No further comment was required. This was one show where any more would have made for a lot less.
There really was an orchestra up there, but it was all coming from Werner’s expansive technique and creative musical mind, as he ripped through standards like Stella By Starlight, All The Things You Are and Body and Soul, throwing in a Joni Mitchell tune and some stride for ballast.
The New York pianist is well known by now as one of the great spontaneous improvisers in jazz. He literally wrote the book on how to do it: his book Effortless Mastery is a must-read for aspiring musicians seeking to unlock their creativity and overcome the fear of failure on stage.
Werner is a fascinating study on the piano bench. His body looks so relaxed that he appears he might fall over. The hands are so perfectly positioned over the keys that the most demanding piano teacher in the world would be delighted. The sound is to die for, effortless in its mechanics but ringing, rich and full. You can almost see his mind working as he tries out an idea, discards it, finds another and leaps on it happily.
The standards were reharmonized and re-examined in new ways. Tempos were accelerated, pulled back and stretched like elastic. At one point, Werner whistled along with himself. And he brought the house down with a blistering set-closing romp through a stride tune.
Upstairs, Montreal’s most intimate jazz bar, is the perfect setting for an up-close-and-personal glimpse of a jazz genius at work. Werner performs two shows again on Wednesday night. Better not miss them.