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Finding Their Strongest Selves

By Victoria Wasylak

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When Kenny Werner and Peter Eldridge huddled together last fall, post-photoshoot in Boston – adjacent to Berklee’s campus – there was a special phrase on their minds: “lush romanticism.” Pondering their new record Somewhere together at the Red Room in Café 939, jazz’s new dynamic duo was still struck by the tone of their new collaborative record, which fuses their respective talents into one musically romantic ride.

An 11-track testament to the pair’s affinity for sentimentalism-laden melodies, the album also stands as a pillar of what it means to mentally push yourself into new territory, even once you’re an established musician. Helping their students find their “strongest selves” is a major point for both men as teachers, but as collaborators, it’s actually what Somewhere brought forth from each of them, as Eldridge and Werner stretched out their talents, mindsets, and comfort zones.

To adapt an old expression, for many musicians, “somewhere” is a destination. But for Eldridge and Werner, Somewhere was an entire journey. Read on about their ride together below.

What can you tell me about how this collaboration got started?

Kenny Werner: Well, I was doing some work with Quincy Jones for a music library company in England, and we were to write a lot of original songs; we had strings and a big band, very much like what Frank Sinatra typically had. I had different singers [working on] different things, but Peter, I believe you only sang on one song?

Peter Eldridge: [It was] “I’m So Glad You’re Mine.”

Werner: I wrote the music and Donnie Demers wrote the lyrics. And I thought of Peter, because I thought it could take sort of a Johnny Hartman kind of treatment, a soft baritone type thing. He came in, and it was so beautiful, the strings were so romantic [with] his voice.

I said to him at that time, “You know, we should do a whole record of that kind of lush romanticism.” We always wanted to do it, but it was many years later that Peter lined up the company to do it.

Did you each write songs and bring them to the table or was it a good 50/50 collaboration?

Werner: Well, we didn’t concentrate on what the percentage would be. We just try to concentrate on what songs fit the description of what we were trying to do, and then we move a little far afield of it. Peter had some stuff that just felt great and I arranged it. He had one of his own that Eugene Friesen arranged. We just made it a little wider, but it still concentrates very heavily on a beautiful, lush, harmonic balance.

You lived in two different states while working on this project. How did that come into play?

Eldridge: We got together at Kenny’s house a couple of times, just to go over repertoire and stuff. I started teaching at Berklee six years ago. That gave us a little more a possibility of seeing each other a little more often. Then, the opportunity with the Berklee World Strings came together and Eugene Friesen, the conductor, plays cello on the project. It slowly but surely started [to become] “Wow, maybe this will actually be a possibility, we can actually do this.” But with everybody’s schedules, with the schedule at the school, with the schedule of the orchestra, it was just putting a lot of pieces together. It takes times. Even the mixing process took time, because everybody’s really busy, everybody’s doing a wide variety of projects and touring. It just took a long time to put it all together.

What’s the total timeframe?

Eldridge: From recording to releasing? At least, two, two and a half years, I think.

What do you think makes a good modern jazz collaboration? What makes it work?

Werner: Well, let me just say that I was trying to avoid it being a modern jazz collaboration, because I feel like we were thinking more about the emotions and the feelings that it elicits from an audience. In that way, it’s not so much like a “modern jazz” thing. A modern jazz thing turns in on itself, and we were thinking about the effect and the impact. I was thinking about a commercial project, a highly-developed project – the kind of project that would have been more typical in the 1950s. That’s what I was thinking about. To do that, jazz would be only a little accoutrement to the main thrust of the project.

Eldridge: Yeah, we tried to find tunes that had a lot of depth and feeling lyrically, harmonically, in every way. But then we both could really latch onto and just try to explore and find different colors in each song. I think it was more about the tunes than “Let’s do something cool,” or “Let’s do something hip.” It was just these songs we really loved, for one reason or another. We just decided to present them without any kind “preconceived jazz.” We just wanted to do a beautiful project.

Werner: A lot of times people do arrangements of songs that really have strong messages to them, but by the time they get done arranging them, they don’t have that anymore. We wanted to do something different with the songs, but not take away the strength that that song communicates.

At what point were you working together and it clicked? When you thought, “this is going to be a great album”?

Eldridge: I knew from the minute he said, “Why don’t we do a whole album like this?”

Werner: Yeah, me too.

Eldridge: I was so excited and just thought, “Wow, what a lovely collaboration.” It was really from the get-go that it just felt like this will just be a dream. When I went into the studio, I thought it was just going to be Kenny and I; I thought it was just going to be piano and voice. I was going in to demo a song with Kenny. I was really excited about that, that that initial tune we did together, and I walked in and there’s a full orchestra set up.

I just thought I missed the memo or something. But I just thought it was going to be you [Kenny] and I doing a duo. And so I walked in and I thought, “Okay, I’m either going to just become nervous and freak out, or I’m going to just love every second of being able to just sing with this group of musicians.” And so I was like, “Why don’t I go with the second choice instead?” And I did. And it was just really fun. I remember the string players clapped.

And I thought, “I did it.” We hadn’t really rehearsed it. We just did it. We just went in and did it.

Was there a “click” moment for you, Kenny?

Werner: It was an unfiltered feeling that this record should really stay with that vibe and not descend into a jazz record. Honest to God, a more myopic jazz record where it’s about people’s solos and you know, everything should support the romance of this sound. I think we achieved that, that’s when it clicked. But also, when we were recording, I don’t know if you [Peter] remember this – we were getting a bagel and you looked at me and you said, “Do you think this might be too good?” Do you remember that?

Eldridge: Did I say that?

Werner: Yes.

Eldridge: Oh my God. I don’t remember saying that at all.

Werner: Yeah you did. I said, “I wouldn’t worry about that. You know, we want something that’s too good.”

Eldridge: One of the arrangements that I just love that Kenny did was the song of mine called “Less Than Lovers.” There’s this whole extended opening, and I think that was what I was talking about. I was just like, “Okay, that is so past what I ever expected this song would ever sound like.” And I was so thrilled. I think that was probably the moment.

Werner: Maybe it suddenly became a more serious record than we thought it was going to be?

Eldridge: Yeah, or have more impact than we even thought it might.

You both work at Berklee, so you both work with students all the time. What did you learn from each other when you were working on this project?

Werner: Sometimes you don’t learn, you just execute. I felt like we both executed. But I think one of the things I learned about Peter is that he doesn’t have a lot of ego about this, which is really great because he was very open to suggestion, you know? And also not fussy at all.

Sometimes you work with a singer and there can be a lot of extra emotional stuff to deal with. I think singing is a riskier thing than playing an instrument. You’re doing it with your body, and it must be a thing instrumentalists can’t totally understand. But with Peter, we were always trying to get an agreement. It was nobody’s way or the highway. It was just very ego-less and very collaborative, which made me feel great. I loved that about Peter.

Eldridge: I would say that the same thing. I usually accompany myself. I was a piano player first, so I will say I’m probably the most comfortable when I am accompanying myself because the piano becomes my security blanket. But when Kenny was playing, I could just let that go. I was just like, “I’m good, I’m good. Everything’s there. I’m not worrying about anything.”

It was a different hat to wear for me to just be the singer, and not be the guy who plays and sings. That first day, when the orchestra started playing on that first tune, and I said [to myself], “Dude, just love every second of this. Because what an incredible moment you get to have right now.” It kind of started there.

Werner: From the beginning, it was always meant to be a collaboration. If it was “Peter’s doing his next record, can you write some strings for me?” then I would have written exactly whatever it was he wanted, and it would have been very supportive, but a little less adventurous. It’s important for people to understand that Peter, although he’s singing, was interested in doing a real collaboration between the arranging and the playing and the singing, and that that’s what this is a result of. We’re coming together to make this arrangement of music come together. It’s different than just someone hiring you to write strings.

How would you two say that this record is different from everything you’ve done in the past?

Eldridge: I’ve never done a project that is so full-bodied. It’s a huge departure for me, from top to bottom, and that was the reason for doing it – getting to work with Kenny and trying to step outside my comfort zone and just go for it.

Werner: I’ve done a few records doing strings, but nothing that I ever invested myself in as deeply as I did in this project. Not even close. Also, I’m hoping that people really get to hear this. I mean, the stuff I was doing also for music library companies, you would never hear that – it’s just something you hear on a commercial or playing in a radio or in a scene in a movie, or whatever. We both invested ourselves way more [in this record]. We both invested ourselves much more in this than we ever have anything else, because we knew we wanted to see it come to fruition and get it out.

Peter, you said you were out of your comfort zone because you were just singing. What is that like? How did you adapt to that?

Eldridge: I just really tried to think about the words I was singing. In each phrase what is the crux of the moment, of this line, of these words? What are the most important words? I mean, you don’t really think about it as you’re doing it, but I think you’re just trying to get deeper and deeper and deeper inside the lyric – it really helps shed some of those uncertainties and insecurities.

Was there any point when you felt like you were outside of your comfort zone, Kenny?

Werner: Well, that whole summer I was outside my comfort zone, for no reason having to do with the recording. I’d had a car accident. That particular year, I had some kind of trauma that made every day absolutely a nightmare.

And somehow I was able to drag myself to the studio every day. Peter was well aware of it. I said to Peter, “I’m going to do my best, but…” It lasted about six months. They say that you can have this trauma after a car accident, and I never thought that was possible, but that’s exactly what happened – six months of hell. Otherwise, no, I don’t think I stretched. In fact, I came back in a little bit because a lot of my music tends to be where I’m just doing my own thing, edgy and rhythmically unusual. We put this bed of roses down and I really thought of myself on, what’s the song? We were almost going to do the Ray Charles song.

Eldridge: “You Don’t Know Me.”

Werner: Yeah. On these different chords, I was really thinking of Ray Charles when I was playing the piano, and just putting bluesy things over less-than-bluesy chords. So, in a sense I was pulling myself into a more classic [sound], which I grew up playing. All kinds of elegance, like the show “Mad Men.” I would play that kind of piano. Every piece is like a different theater piece, in a way. And for some of the pieces, that’s the piano that belongs there.

You both teach on top of your music careers. How did you find time to work on this, with all the other projects that you both work on?

Werner: Well, I had a couple of months where I wasn’t doing anything and I worked on the arrangements. I was home. That’s my best way to do it. I used to write on the bus with a laptop sitting on my [lap] – I really don’t feel like doing that anymore. At home I have things laid out. I have a good chair, good studio, so I had time to write it. But Peter was running… I couldn’t believe how busy you were while I was writing this stuff. You were doing a million things. We were lucky you were able to show up and sing the songs.

And as ragged as it was, we stayed away from making it “just another jazz project.” We nailed something that they’re really responding to. For this, I wanted to really make sure that the drama was there. People could feel a little more like a movie. I’ve been feeling this way for, I think now for over 10 – about 15 years. I’m more of a movie buff than a music buff. When I think something’s really happening, I’ll turn to the producer and say, “That was a movie.”

How do you teach a skill like that to other people? For it to “go beyond music?”

Eldridge: I think one of the goals of teaching is to help somebody find what’s unique about them, whether it’s in their sound, or their phrasing, or their feel, or their persona, or the kind of music they do. And I think through that, you can start opening up those doors a little bit. That really makes them kind of go, “Well, I’ve never done anything like this before.” I think it’s just helping a student find what their particular personality, or uniqueness, is in music. Then kind of going from there.

Werner: Their biggest strength is what’s already in them. I may have several things that are unique to me, and the reason they work is because I let them out. My goal wouldn’t be to teach them to do something that’s unique to me, but to help them find out what’s unique to them. When someone goes all the way into that space, whether it’s heartfelt or mentally driven, but it’s really them, however they think, however they act, however they feel – that’s their strongest self to perform from. Actually, my job is really just helping them find that, getting the thoughts of what they think they “should be” out of the way. That’s actually what I teach.

Eldridge: Yeah, I agree. I would say the best thing is when you get out of your own way. When you’re just like unencumbered and just kind of in it. That’s always the best.

One of the classes I teach is a great American songbook performance class. We’re at a place in time where some of the students have no idea who Cole Porter is and who George Gershwin is. And so, your job is twofold. You’re introducing them to [that material] like, “Aren’t these cool? Aren’t these composers great?” And, you’re also trying to chip away [at] pop music where everything’s over-stylized, and there’s a lot going on. We’re just getting to the meat and potatoes of this. I said, “As soon as you walk out the door, you do whatever you want. But in here there’s no extra stuff. It’s simple and it’s a lyric.”

At first they’re kind of like, “Wait a minute, I can’t stylize?” And it’s like, “Well, no. Isn’t that wild?” And for a few weeks I think they feel really stuck and they don’t know what to do. We start sharing ideas and giving them little things to think about. Then by the second month or third month, I can see them going, “Oh.” They start getting it. By the end of the semester they’re really interpreting and they’re really in the moment, and they’re singing something a little differently than the way they sang it yesterday, or they’re bringing their day into the song. Which is kind of what you do, too – you try to bring your day, whether it’s good, bad, frustrating, wonderful. Whatever feeling you’re in, that’s who you are that day and that’s how you sing. By the end of the semester, I think they get it, and that’s really fun. I feel like their worlds had been rocked a little bit, in a good way.

Werner: That’s the best combination. You came to school to learn something you don’t know. So, let’s not avoid things you don’t know because they may strengthen what it is you want to do. And that’s the thing, not to tell them, “No, you’ve been doing the wrong thing. This is real singing.” But to say, “Look, out there, you do whatever you feel like doing. In here we’re concentrating on this – hopefully for it to have a positive effect on what you’re doing.”

Let me say that the strongest thing you can do is continue to be you. Open yourself up to the learning without taking it personally, and without thinking you have to change. You [educators] turn out people that are only more who they are, with more tools. That’s the ideal thing. Instead of turning out a lot of confused people. Ideally a school should help you discover your power.

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