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Steve Lantner: An Introduction

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The effect that I would like my music to have would be to have an audience dancing in the aisles, all the while with tears rolling down their cheeks. That hasnt happened yet.
Steve Lantner Steve Lantner's current run of creative output may be below the radar, but the quality of his recordings is off the charts. His debut as bandleader came in 1997 alongside longtime cohort/violist/violinist Mat Maneri in an adventurous set of duets that had Lantner playing both acoustic piano and a synthesizer set ninety degrees apart [Reaching (Leo)]. Lantner furthered his exploration of microtonalities on Voices Lowered (Leo 2001), where he played two pianos tune ¼ pitch apart alongside Joe Maneri and Joe Morris playing electric violins. Notably, the multi-talented Morris' first recording as a bassist—a debut Lantner prefers to take no credit for—came just one year later on Saying So (Riti, 2002).

A graduate of the Berklee College of Music and subsequent student of Joe Maneri's at the no-less-esteemed New England Conservatory, Lantner's What You Can Throw (HatOLOGY, 2007) sees the avant-garde pianist teamed again with drummer Luther Gray and Morris. On it—the Lantner/Gray/Morris trios third together—Lantner and co. perform the works of Anthony Braxton and Ornette Coleman as well as their own tunes, primarily at the suggestion of Hathut founder Werner Uehlinger. "[He] expressed an interest in hearing me play some compositions from musicians I admire," Lantner says. "I'm really glad that he suggested it, because it got me to do something I wouldn't have otherwise done."

This piece is titled An Introduction because Lantner's story clearly isn't written yet, with just five records as a bandleader under his belt. Undoubtedly there are plenty of fascinating releases to come. Lantner and I originally spoke in January of 2007, back when What You Can Throw was slated for a spring release by Hathut. With the record put on the back burner by the label so, too, was the interview. Lantner is both engaging and possessing of interesting insights.

All About Jazz: What was the recording process like for What You Can Throw? Did it differ from previous recordings in any way?

Steve Lantner: The biggest difference for this recording was that we did a few things with other peoples' music, so we had to devote a certain amount of time on those pesky things like not screwing up the head. The most challenging in this regard was Braxton's "Composition 23J," just because it's Braxton.

AAJ: When there is such a lag between when an album was recorded and when it is released, do you tend to forget about it? Are you constantly thinking about the next recording, next performance, or the next challenge?

SL: The delay between the recording and release of this CD coincided with a time in my life that saw a great deal of non-musical distractions, so to a certain degree my music was put on hold. I plan to use the HatOLOGY trio release as the much-needed motivation to get off my behind and get some gigs for my band.

In addition to this trio release, I have a live quartet recording (from Münster, January 2007) slated for release in the spring of 2008, and hopefully before year's end [saxophonist] Allan Chase and I will finally do the duo recording we've been talking about. In the interim, I've been focusing primarily on my piano playing, and trying to bring it to a higher level.

Steve AAJ: Describe if you can your relationship with Joe Morris, and Joe and Mat Maneri.

SL: Joe is a very good friend, and it is largely through his encouragement that I was able to incorporate all of my musical abilities into my playing. It was my experience playing with the Maneris that, due to their very personal vision, I had to limit myself to fit their sound. Joe Morris' attitude is, "Play it all. It's a much more enjoyable experience as a musician to feel like, if you can play something and you enjoy doing it, it must be valid to your artistry. It makes life that much simpler.

AAJ: With regards to Joe—the guy seems to be the man that everyone wants to work with. In the past couple years he seems to be popping up on all sorts of albums, including a handful of your own records. You've been working with him for years—do you take any credit in this resurgence in his popularity?

SL: Joe is one of the hardest working musicians I know, and I have the greatest respect for him. What I love about his bass playing is that it offers nothing but possibilities. He swings like mad, and is always listening and supporting. It is true that his bass recording debut was on my CD Saying So (Riti, 2002), but he's too fun to play with for me to take any credit for the demand he may enjoy.

What I very much look forward to is a chance to play more with Joe the guitarist. People have been focusing on his recent activity as a bassist, but he has a number of things coming out soon, including the release of a four-CD set of duets with Anthony Braxton that people will definitely want to hear.

AAJ: That sounds amazing. You've worked with and without a drummer. You've also augmented your classic trio with horns. Paradise Road (Skycap, 2006), with Allan Chase, was my first introduction to your playing. That's just a superb record. I remember I wrote you were "Like a fast talker eager to make [your] points felt just as much as heard[.] Lantner weaves his topics of conversation in, out and around the loose rhythms.

As far as working with horns or without, do you have a preference? Do you know going into a recording session what form you want the ensemble to take and what players you want involved?

SL:Every combination of instruments changes my playing to some degree. When I play with a rhythm section, I tend to thin out the texture, so as to allow the sound of the other players to come through. Adding a horn to my trio allows me to shape the music from behind the primary focus. Playing without a rhythm section allows me to use the full range of the piano without the fear of getting in anyone's way. The way I play in a duo with Allan Chase is very different than how I play with the trio, in that I play a lot more piano.

It usually takes me so long to organize a recording that I tend to know well in advance what instrumentation I'll be using and what qualities I would like my music to impart. I have now produced two recordings of my trio with Joe Morris and Luther Gray, as well as two with the quartet that includes Allan Chase. While I am happy with all of this work, there is always something I'd like to improve. It is a constant effort to get closer to an unattainable ideal.

AAJ: Well, I love the stuff you've done with Allan Chase and the duo record should be amazing. You've performed live with folks like Fred Anderson and Ken Vandermark ... where are those recordings? Would you like to expand the group of musicians you record with or do you think there is something in Morris, Gray that allows you do explore the concepts and ideas you really want to focus on?

SL: The work I've done with Allan Chase, especially in a duo setting is very exciting to me. He and I have a very similar approach to unit structure improvisation. The sound that I am striving for in my music is in the balance between consonance and dissonance, and I use the term "resonance to describe this sound. It is my tendency to seek this middle ground harmonically, so that if the music is sounding a little too rich harmonically, I will try to center it with a more clearly established tonal center or reference point.

Steve

Alternately, if I think the music is too settled with a clear tonal center, I will extend the harmonic palette. I don't ever like to find myself in a situation where the harmonic language is so confined that I couldn't make any pitch work in some context, i.e. wrong notes. Along those lines, Allan and I have a special rapport. He once commented, when we were playing duo, that he felt like he could play any note against what I was playing and it would sound good. That is exactly what I try to do: create a setting where anything is possible. I think the piano is an instrument that can so clearly establish harmony that in an improvisational setting the pianist has an obligation to provide support without dictating the harmonic choices of the soloist. I want to create a musical setting where any note can sound good harmonically.

As far as my work with others, I did a gig with Fred Anderson that I recorded in Chicago with my trio, but I'm not sure what, if anything, I plan to do with it. And also on that trip I played with Ken Vandermark, although that was not recorded professionally. Both of those performances were great experiences for me. I love Chicago, and hope to get back there soon. I enjoy putting myself in unfamiliar situations, and I relish any opportunity to be a sideman in other peoples' projects because it tends to bring things out of my playing that might not otherwise happen. A good example is the recently released Joe Giardullo CD, Red Morocco (Rogueart, 2007), which is a beautiful and delicate large improvisational ensemble. On that record, I had the opportunity to play in a way that I might not otherwise do.

But for my own projects, I find that playing with people I'm most familiar, I'm able to get deeper into the music, and more things tend to happen that I would consider noteworthy. I want things to happen in the music, not to have the time just pass by, and then it's over.

AAJ: So your choice of sidemen influence the way you approach playing the piano?

SL: As I've said, I like to play a lot of different music, at least for myself in my studies and practice, and while for the most part it tends to all get distilled into one style, I will play differently to work with different players. But almost in a reverse chameleon kind of way: I like to break things out of the expected, so I like to push people a little bit (not too much though) and try to get things to go somewhere else. Whatever it is someone expects to hear, I like to do maybe not the opposite, but something else. Not to sabotage the music, or to simply be clever, but to push it just a little past where it might otherwise go. I think for the most part throughout history breakthroughs in music have been made in small steps, not through iconoclastic gestures.

AAJ: So having a core group of trusted musicians, with whom you have such a solid connection, makes your life easier as an artist?

SL:Yes—I think it's invaluable for a musician to find a community of peers with whom he or she is both challenged and supported, to have people with whom you can work out new ideas without worrying about whether or not it's going to work. I have met too many musicians who put down other groups because they do something different, as if what they do is the only correct direction for the music to be going in. That is incredibly tiresome to me.

My goal is to play with people I like to be with on and off the stage, play the best I can, and have fun doing it.

AAJ: There's this attitude that is "jazz is dead —who knows where it comes from. Certainly not the All About Jazz audience. In the independent music scene there is actually a lot of really good, fresh, new jazz being released. Do you keep the attitude of "Well, I'm going to press on and do what I do, and if the support is there, and if labels want to release it and people want to hear, then great—if not, so be it or does something else motivate you?

SL: Jazz is not dead. That's as silly as that other post-modern cliché "Everything's already been done. It just shows the lack of imagination on the part of the individual who believes it. The vitality of any art form is dependent on its participants using their imaginations to create something new and original.

As far as my motivation goes, it's always been a difficult question for me to answer. The audience for the type of music I make is so small that, while I welcome any recognition I may receive, it is hardly enough to sustain the effort (I'm still a little shocked when I meet strangers who've heard my music). I continue the pursuit for the sake of the Music. I'm still trying to play something that will make the skies open up, and while I know that will never happen, that's what keeps me going.

AAJ: Tell me about some of your history—with music in general and with the piano in particular.

SL: It's been a slow road. I started piano lessons at the age of five, with what I now know was a not good teacher. I was taught all wrong, like most children who are subjected to piano lesson. I hobbled along, with little to show for my minimal effort until I finally quit and bought an electric guitar at age twelve. I taught myself all wrong and my love of music and its exploration began (my first guitar hero was Jimi Hendrix, and I copied him before I learned that he was left handed, and that everyone else plays the other way, but by then I had developed the coordination to play lefty, and to boot I learned with a guitar strung right-handed, à la Albert King).

I played lead guitar in a band in high school. We changed our name every time we played—an early exercise in obscurity, I suppose. I also continued with the piano, but was making up my own music. I bought a 4-track reel-to-reel and started making overdubbed recordings with piano, guitar and this very cool echo box this guy made for me. I also remember the day I heard Albert Ayler on the radio and my heart stopped.

After high school I went to Berklee as a piano major, since I assumed they'd never let me play guitar the way I did. I was a disaster: I had no technique, and my reading was very weak. I could handle all the classwork, but I got assigned the most depressingly remedial ensembles. After two semesters, I went home and just started practicing, with the hope of catching up all the lost time. After a winter and spring in Cleveland, I went back to Berklee, still way behind the curve with my playing, but I was writing some decent tunes, and actually was able to put a group together with some amazing players, among them a very young Dave Douglas. I was always the weak link, and felt privileged that these guys would play with me.

While at Berklee, I was exposed to a lot of great music and spent a great deal of time listening to Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy. I absorbed it mostly through osmosis, since I didn't have the ears to really understand what it was they were doing. I just liked the way it sounded.

Steve

It was around this time that I started studying with Charlie Banacos, who is the person responsible for teaching me how to play the instrument, which was a long and difficult process. Most importantly Charlie taught me how to abstract the components of any style so as to incorporate them without merely copying.

After Berklee, I went to New England Conservatory and studied primarily with Joe Maneri. Far more influential than the microtonal work were the studies of harmony and counterpoint, for which he was singularly qualified in my view. I otherwise kept to myself at NEC, finding that most of coursework I took was an exercise in taxonomy, rather than what I thought would be good to learn, such as what makes great music great.

It was while I was studying with Joe Maneri that I was introduced to his son Mat, who I believe was nineteen at the time. We started playing together, and I introduced him to the drummer Randy Peterson, with whom I was also playing. We started playing all together, first with some others, than just as a trio. It was with this group Persona that I started playing the quarter-tone keyboards, which Mat owned from the previous incarnation of the band. We played together for a couple of years, but eventually disbanded. The difficulty we found was that our music was difficult to categorize for presenters. We were improvising, but weren't really playing jazz; we were playing contrapuntal contemporary chamber music, but we had a drummer which kept us out of the concert halls.

My first CD, Reaching , is a set of duos with Mat Maneri, basically doing the music we developed during this period. It was on this recording that I played both an acoustic piano and a digital piano, whose pitch I was able to change. The desire was to employ microtones, basically sixth tones (a 36-note octave), and this was the only means available to me at the time, as awkward as it was.

It was during my next recording Voices Lowered, that I first worked with Joe Morris. On this recording I use two acoustic pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. While I prefer the softer sound of the sixth tones as heard on Reaching, I will always prefer to play acoustic pianos, and incredibly, the recording studio agreed to have their second grand piano tuned down—something I never expected them to do.

It was after Voices Lowered that I started playing just the piano again, leaving the microtones behind. I felt there was too much I couldn't do in that style that I wanted to do and I felt like I was hiding behind a novelty. What I wanted to do was play the piano in a larger world, and to play it as best as I could, and be compared to my peers. Since switching my focus back to the single keyboard, my understanding of the instrument has continued to grow, as has my love of it.

AAJ: For someone who may not be wholly familiar with classical music or music theory in general, describe the concept of "microtonal music, where this concept comes from, how it influences you...

SL: The standardized pitch language in western music is the equal tempered scale, which divides the octave into twelve equal pitches, like inches on a ruler. In the broadest definition, microtonality is the use of any pitch other than those twelve. I have come across three different schools of use for microtonality: borrowing pitches from non-western scales, the use of just intonation, which is in many respects a reaction to the impurities produced by our modern equal-tempered scale, and lastly those who use it to expand the number of notes in the equal tempered scale (examples being a 24, 36, or 72 note scale).

I was drawn to microtonality as a teenager, being drawn to explore places beyond what are considered the usual choices. I studied this more during my time at New England Conservatory under the direction of Joe Maneri. What I found most appealing were the harmonic possibilities it offered.

Steve

At the time I felt like the only way to create new harmony with the existing twelve tones was by having a minimum of six notes to a chord. With microtones, you could create something of incredible harmonic complexity with just three pitches. As a pianist though, my options for using this expanded language were limited. The one purely acoustic option I had was to play two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart simultaneously. This presented a number of technical challenges, primarily the fact that I needed two hands to play one microtonal melody or harmony (to my ears, playing the two pianos in a traditional manner, i.e. one hand playing chords, while the other playing a melody, just sounded like a bad joke). And then, of course, there was the huge practical challenge of finding two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart.

One of the most profound shortcomings I encountered with the use of microtonality was that, in order for it to be perceived by the listener, the pitch language required an undue emphasis, which resulted in a lot of slow, brooding music. I ultimately abandoned the pursuit of microtonal playing, because I felt like I was hiding behind the uniqueness of what I was doing. I felt like my music couldn't be assessed in any way other than that no one else was doing it.

AAJ: "Pitch class sets. You used those on Paradise Road.

SL: "Pitch class set simply means a group of notes with a specific set of intervals. In tonal music the structures used are called "chords. Chords, in the traditional sense, are built from thirds (every other note of a scale, usual between three and seven notes). You can call any group of notes a "chord if you like, but the taxonomists might object, hence "pitch class set. The term came about to provide clarity to the harmonies being created by the twelve-tone composers. For what I do, it's a way of organizing my notes in a way other than with traditional chords, and all the different ways of playing around with them.

It works for the sound I want to get, which leans more toward the richness of the twelve-tone aggregate.

AAJ: What influences you more, classical or jazz? Are they two arms of the same beast? The word I saw in one review referring to your music was "European art music.

SL: I would have to say that the two influence me equally. I play a lot of different music, but ultimately it is all to one purpose, which is to play jazz. I have a very catholic approach to my playing, in that my goal is embrace as much music as possible, and to distill into a unified language. Jazz is by its nature fusion music, and ideally a living, evolving art form.

The effect that I would like my music to have would be to have an audience dancing in the aisles, all the while with tears rolling down their cheeks. That hasn't happened yet.

Steve

AAJ: Your playing has been described as more lyrical than the post-Cecil Taylor school of pianists. Is this lyricism something you strive for, does it just come naturally? Despite being classified or boxed-in as a free jazz player, you tend to gravitate to the more trad be-bop school of chords on one hand, melody on the other. It maybe just sounds free because of note choice, etc. JazzTimes called one of your records "mainstream bebop... refracted through an abstract, thoroughly modern idiom.

SL: I don't think anything comes naturally to me, and whatever I've been able to accomplish musically has been through a directed effort. There are several qualities that I try to impart in my music, forward motion being probably the most important. I also try to develop the music in a way the leads the listener through time, so that they can follow how it is I am going from point A to point B. I think all music should have some aspect of lyricism, regardless of the style, but in improvised music that can be difficult. It is impossible to be lyrical if your phrasing is determined by whether or not you can find the next note.

I'm not really all that concerned with how I am classified, as those labels tend to be the result of subjective opinions from a handful of individuals, whose range of knowledge can only be so extensive. It is human nature to compare something to something else. As a slightly bizarre example, say you are a food writer, and the only fruits you've ever eaten were oranges, apples and bananas, kiwi, pineapple, and mango. How would you describe a guanabana?

I like to play stride, boogie-woogie, be-bop, modal, etc., and I think free jazz should contain all of the above. I am playing free in the sense that I mostly improvise without any predetermined melodic or harmonic material, other than perhaps a pitch class set, or, as Cecil Taylor would call it a "unit structure. I don't think that free jazz is defined by the style and language of its originators, who were simply creative people, each with their own unique set of influences, strengths and weaknesses. The thought of copying the sum of one person's work and then trying to take it further seems like a recipe for failure. What I have tried to do is to expose myself the primary influences of the innovators, and make my own synthesis of that body of knowledge. Otherwise I fear a narrowing of the music will be the result.

I also feel that with the freedom comes responsibility: if I give myself the freedom to play anything I want, it better be more interesting than something that has had limits imposed on it. I believe that music is enhanced silence, so it needs to be an improvement.


Selected Discography

Steve Lantner Trio, What You Can Throw (HatOLOGY, 2007)
Steve Lantner Quartet, Paradise Road (Skycap, 2006)
Steve Lantner Trio, Blue Yonder (Skycap, 2005)
Steve Lantner Trio, Saying So (Riti 2002)
Lantner/Maneri/Morris, Voices Lowered (Leo, 2001)
Steve Lantner/Mat Maneri, Reaching (Leo, 1997)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Steve Lantner


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