Finding your ‘profound space’ with Chandrika Tandon and Kenny Werner

Chandrika Tandon is a Grammy-nominated artist, a humanitarian, a philanthropist and a leader in the world of business, education and the arts. She’s produced four albums, including Soul Call, which earned her a Grammy nomination. Her music is moving, spiritual, entertaining and healing, and she’s described her most recent album Shivoham – The Quest as “the musical expression of my journey toward the light.”

Kenny Werner is a world-renowned pianist and Grammy-nominated composer whose recordings have been universally praised and looked to for inspiration and motivation by music lovers and musicians alike. There are probably few musicians who haven’t read his landmark book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within. His seminal work No Beginning, No End won him the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship, and his latest project Somewhere with Peter Eldridge is, in a word, sublime.

Tandon and Werner joined forces for a special duo performance called Breaking Boundaries earlier this week at the Jazz Bistro. Before the show, they joined us in the JAZZ.FM91 studios to talk about their collaboration and to share a special performance live on the air.

Scroll down to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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How did this particular duo project begin?

Chandrika Tandon: I met Kenny probably 10 or 12 years ago. I heard him at the Blue Note playing with Toots Thielemans. I didn’t know Kenny and I’m not from the jazz world, but I remember being just mesmerized by the lyricality of the piano playing. So I asked to go backstage to meet Kenny. Fast forward, we met again. The first time I met Kenny, I think we both emerged from singing and playing, and 45 minutes later we both had tears coming down because we both went to spaces that certainly I’d never been to before. We’ve always looked for opportunities to do things together, and here we are on this whole new journey.

There’s a spirituality in both of your music that’s pretty evident as a listener, but certainly if you do any research on the two of you, it tends to be a pervasive theme. How do you describe what it is that you do, coming from two potentially different worlds and then combining those worlds in this project?

Kenny Werner: I put it into a very simple context: You either play from your conscious mind where all the gunk is, or you play from the space where every note is precious. I’ve had the gift of teaching it for so long that I’m really even more in that space than I was when I was just doing it. When you keep showing it to people, you get deeper into that space yourself. As I get older, I’m more interested in what comes from that space than in how good it is. We did spend a lot of time at home just doing this, but then Chandrika formulated songs out of that. A lot of that was the foundation of what became Shivoham. We were just running through raga and she was free-associating with the words that inspired her. Some songs were writing themselves from that space. A lot of the time I thought we were just improvising, she was composing this monumental piece.

The idea of spontaneous creation — is it something that you were striving for? Did you have any idea of what you were looking for or what was going to be the result?

Chandrika Tandon: This gets into this whole notion of “effortless.” The moment you strive for something, nothing happens. The more you let go, you just quiet yourself down to find what is already in you and in the universe, because you’re connected to a much bigger source. For me, the journey over the last 20 years was that music helped me find myself. Even though I had been in the business world and had a huge amount of “success” in traditional terms, music really helped me on a journey into my own self. And the more I got into music — not to get anywhere, not to create something, not to become famous, not to get a Grammy nomination, but for the sheer joy of being in the music — that expanded me in a very, very dramatic way. What I think about a lot is that we can teach all the students in the world about reading, writing and arithmetic, and we’ve done that as a society. I’m actively involved in the STEM world, engineering and the arts as well. But if we don’t teach kids to access the introspection, the quietness of their minds, we will essentially have a lost generation. That’s my learning and my work, in terms of what I’d like to be able to do a lot more of. You need a lot of practice. It’s not easy. You can’t just say, “Still your thoughts,” and the thoughts go away. They don’t. If anything, they come back with a vengeance. So, it requires a very long and intensive practice. It’s discipline. It’s like brushing your teeth. You have to brush your mind.

This business is just that — it’s the music business. It changes more and more. The technology is becoming more of a part of it, social media is becoming more of a part of it. We’re trying to be spiritual and into the music, but at the same time you’re thinking, “Oh, I better tweet something about this.” How do you balance that idea of the practicality of the business side of things and the spirituality of the music?

Kenny Werner: We didn’t really touch on your earlier question of how we came together. Chandrika comes from India, with the predominant philosophical practices — the texts, the vetas, the kashmir shavism — however I … have needed the aid of a certain type of yogic path that I’ve been following for 30 years. So, I knew a lot of the terminology of what she was talking about. I’ve had the experience of the same feeling that those mantras can give. It’s been my quest in life to master my own mind, because I’ve had a lot of trouble with my mind. I found the only real answer is … to focus on the space. There are words for that space in every religious, spiritual and philosophical tradition on Earth. I was an avatar when it came to playing, because I played from that space from the very beginning. I’m 7 years old and I’m playing and everyone’s freaking out and I don’t know know why and I don’t care. I basically never changed. But as a person, I’ve had to work on that all my life to even get close to the same kind of simplicity that that affords us. The thing is, one of the most misunderstood things is that great musicians are in this profound space because they’re great musicians. I know a lot of great musicians who are not in a profound space but they play great, and I know musicians that are nothing special who are in a profound space. First of all, you don’t have to be a virtuoso to find this space, and second of all, people aren’t just born with it. It can be taught. And that’s what Effortless Mastery is. It’s teaching people to find their own profound space, but then to connect it to their music. Here’s the one trick: You have to sacrifice the need to sound good, or you’ll never find it.

That’s a tough challenge.

Kenny Werner: It can be, but once they drop it, they sound so good that you start to have faith in that process.

Chandrika Tandon: I think a lot of people aren’t in that space. My journey began 20 years ago because I had everything, yet I was so stressed out and my mind was this continuous Grand Central of questions and emotions and stress. Stress has become a common word in society. So back to your question of dealing with the practical while you’re balancing the spiritual, it’s not that you suddenly stop doing anything else that’s practical and go onto a mountaintop and start saying oms. Some people have the luxury of doing that, but most of us don’t. If anything, I’m 100 times busier than I was 10 years ago, and I was pretty busy then by general standards. What changes is that the prism with which you view your activities changes. You could be tweeting, but you’re not stressed about the outcome of the tweeting. You’re not stressed out that someone liked you or didn’t like you. You’re just in a space of what I have been signing my emails with for the last 15 years: love, light, laughter. This is my signature. It’s not because I’m trying to make a point. I’m making a point to myself, which says: I am love, I am light, and I owe laughter to myself. And if I come from that space of radiance, whatever I come out with is perfection at that moment. Otherwise, we spend a lifetime figuring out if we’re good enough. Each time you play a note is perfection. The most ancient traditions, at least in my culture, [say that] you are abundance. You are connected to the light. It’s called, “I am that light.” So if I say, “I am that light,” how can I be any less?