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B.D. Lenz: Finding His Own Voice


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B.D. Lenz began his musical journey at 14, when he was first inspired to learn to play the guitar. Since then, he has gone on to study with such jazz luminaries as guitarists Mike Stern and Vic Juris and pianist Charlie Banacos. After graduating from the Musician's Institute in Hollywood, California, Lenz finished his formal musical education at the College of New Jersey, where he graduated with honors. Though he finished his scholarly studies years ago, Lenz has furthered his education on bandstands and in recording studios all over the East Coast and beyond.

Lenz has released six recordings as a band leader; he has also performed and recorded with some of the best in the business, including Randy Brecker, Will Lee, Joel Rosenblatt, Mark Egan and Kathy Phillips. His original music can be heard internationally on more than 100 television shows on networks such as MTV, VH1, USA, A&E, Comedy Central and PBS. Lenz has been named as one of the top 20 up-and-coming jazz musicians in New Jersey by The Star-Ledger of Newark, and he was recently featured in The New York Times.

Lenz's style is not easily categorized. Drawing influences from rock, blues, jazz, funk and fusion, Lenz's music displays his unique voice as both a composer and a player, something he has worked hard to achieve. Possessing ample chops and a strong sense of awareness of when to use them, Lenz's music portrays his deep attachment to groove and rhythm as well as an uncanny ability to craft interesting and memorable melodies. With a half-dozen albums under his belt and a busy performance schedule, this master guitarist is firmly looking at his future—one that looks to be very bright for this New Jersey-based guitarist.

All About Jazz: The title of your album Hit It and Quit references one of the songs on the album, but the title is also one of the phrases that singer James Brown was famous for using. How big of an influence is the 1970s funk and soul movement on your playing and writing?

B.D. Lenz: I guess, subliminally, it was a big influence on me, although I didn't grow up listening to that music. I was more into bands like Zeppelin—that kind of stuff. From playing jazz and playing in funk bands in the past few years, it's ingrained itself into my playing, at least subconsciously. Even some of the jazz players I listen to, like Mike Stern, they have that influence in their playing. So I've learned second hand from guys like that as well.

AAJ: There are a bunch of different influences that come out in your playing on the album, including rock, funk, fusion, jazz and blues. The opening tune, "H-Town," especially has a strong blues vibe to it. How much of an influence did the blues have in your musical development?

BDL: Again, I have to go back to my upbringing, where I was listening to Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughn and even more modern guys like Joe Satriani. Even when it's progressive, guys like Satch still have a lot of blues in their playing. I like amazing technique as much as the next guy, but for me, I really prefer music that has soul and feeling in it. In my own playing and writing, I try and get the best of both worlds, and it's always comfortable to fall back on the blues since it's something that I grew up with, more so than other genres of music.

AAJ: During your musical development, you attended and received degrees from several top-level music programs in both New Jersey and Los Angeles. What were some of the pros and cons you found in going through these programs? Could a young musician make it today without going through some sort of post-secondary musical training?

BDL: I would say that the pros are, number one, students are enveloped in the world of great musicians, and there are a bunch of people at the school in the same age group who are going through the same thing. It's a chance to just eat, breath and sleep music for years straight. They don't have to worry about the life stuff that comes up after school; they can just focus on music.

I think the con against going to a music school is that the school can sometimes become a factory. It can sometimes strip a student's identity away because they might be pushing certain players or certain genres more than others. I'm not saying that I completely sound like my own thing and don't have influences, but I've tried to find my own voice, and sometimes school isn't the best place for that. It's really a journey of self-discovery in regard to finding one's own voice.

AAJ: You continued to study after finishing your degrees, most notably with Banacos. What was it like studying with Charlie, who is known as a jazz guru of sorts?

BDL: I had a couple of lessons with Mike Stern, and he told me up front that he was just giving me stuff that Charlie had given him, and I might as well just go to the source, which is what I ended up doing. Charlie's approach is definitely regimented, but at the time there were things in my playing, in terms of jazz, that should have been there but weren't. For some reason, I just never got certain things in playing growing up, and he noticed those things and gave me exercises that helped to fix those holes.

I only studied with him for three or four years—there are people that have studied with him for a lifetime—because at some point it became a little old for me. It became tiring working through exercises all the time. But what he did give me really helped with my deficiencies. He knew just what I needed; he nailed it perfectly. What he gave me really helped me develop certain aspects of my jazz playing that really needed fixing, so I'm glad I spent the time with him that I did.

AAJ: How much time did you spend transcribing during your development?

BDL: Years ago, especially when I was in school, I filled books with the transcriptions that I did. I spent a lot of time back then transcribing a ton of stuff. I think now it's mostly just laziness that I don't do it much anymore. I still hear things that I really dig, and I'll listen back to them a few times, but I don't actively write them out and study licks or solos anymore. I spent a lot of time doing it when I was younger, but now I have other things I like to focus on during my practice time.

AAJ: You have a strong sense of rhythm in your playing and writing—on the tune "Pilly," for example. Do you focus on finding a cool groove when you're writing your tunes and then add the melody, or vice-versa?

BDL: The way that I write the melody seems to come last. I'll develop a rhythm section idea and then fit the melody around it. I'm really big on writing melodies; it's not like it's not important or that I'm pushing it off until the end. I have to get the base of the tune first, then I can develop the melody. I usually spend a lot of time working on melodies; I really like to get them as perfect as I can.

That tune, "Pilly," in particular is very rhythmic in nature. I had originally written that tune with my drummer, Joel Rosenblatt, in mind. The album had originally been pitched from the label as being Joel's album, so I was writing the tune with the idea that other drummers would be checking it out. It's a 7/8 thing, and it definitely focuses on a specific rhythmic idea.

AAJ: How much overdubbing did you do on the record? Do you approach overdubbing as a necessity or more of a compositional tool?

BDL: I know that some people are very strong in their opinions about overdubbing, especially in the jazz world. My record isn't really a traditional jazz record, it's a little more contemporary and composed, so I did spend a lot of time producing and arranging the music using overdubs. If I was doing an album of standards, that probably wouldn't be the case, but I'm more of a modern, fusion player, so I do overdub quite a bit in order to get the sounds down on record that I'm hearing.

AAJ: Since you are using overdubs as well as other studio techniques in your compositions, how finished are the pieces when you get to the studio? Do you spend a lot of time writing during the sessions or do you prefer to have it all worked out once it's time to record?

BDL: I would say that as I've grown musically over the years, the more I have everything worked out before I get into the studio. For this last record, I basically brought in a skeleton for all of the tunes that I had demoed on my home computer, and the guys used that as a scratch track to play over. When I'm dealing with high-level players, like the guys on the album, and in a very expensive studio, I can't mess around. I have to be as prepared as possible, so I can go in and just bang it out with as few issues as possible.

AAJ: On a couple of the tunes on the album, "No Regrets" and "Sympathy for the Common Man," you use an acoustic guitar, which isn't a surprising choice given your musical background. What is it about the acoustic guitar that draws you to use it in your writing and performing?

BDL: Well, I like to make every song have its own unique vibe. As well, I like to have each song on a record have its own sound, or else it might get kind of boring. Two huge heroes of mine are Mike Stern and Pat Metheny, and I love the beautiful ballads they've done on acoustic guitar. So in a way I'm emulating them, but it's also about finding a variety of sounds that I can use effectively on a record.

AAJ: On another tune, "Truth is a Temple," you use a volume pedal to get some very cool sounds out of the guitar. How do you approach using effects pedals in your playing and writing?

BDL: I wish I could say I was more adventurous with sound, but I feel it's a weak point for me, just exploring effects and stuff. My live rig only has three pedals in it. That tune in particular—I always wanted to write a tune that had that kind of vibe to it. I had been listening to some players who did ambient music, and I wanted to do something like that myself, so I had to go find the right patch to make it happen, but otherwise I'm very simple when it comes to choosing effects.

AAJ: That tune is a solo piece, and it fits very well within the context of the rest of the album. Do you have any plans to pursue your solo playing further—maybe do a whole album of solo tunes?

BDL: Not really. I want to touch on that aspect of my playing, but to do a whole solo album, I would have to be a master at that style, and frankly, I'm not. I did the one piece, and I'm happy with how it turned out, but I don't think I'm good enough as a solo player to do a whole album.

Frankly, I've heard whole records of that stuff, like Robert Fripp, and it was amazing—he's one of the best ambient solo players out there—but even then it got to be a bit much after a while. I figure if I feel that way about a master like him, than I'm probably not ready to do an album like that myself.

AAJ: Will Lee plays bass on Hit It and Quit. He's played and toured with some of the best guitarists in the business. What was it like working with Will in the studio?

BDL: That guy is the funniest human being on the earth. I had never met him before we got into the studio, and I didn't really know what to expect. He turned out to be so cool and funny; it really took the pressure off of things. He's Will Lee, and I wanted to make sure the session was well organized, and he's cool with everything, but like I said, he was so cool, and his vibe in the studio was great. I have nothing but great things to say about Will. Besides being one of the best bass players on the planet, he's also just a great human being.

AAJ: There's a section on your Web site where you post full arrangements of your tunes so that people can download them and check them out. Why did you choose to share your music in this way with your fans?

BDL: At some point, I found a bunch of charts on [John] John Scofield's site that were from his album A Go Go. After downloading them and checking them out, I really wanted to listen to the album and play along with it. So I thought if people only knew my music a little bit, if they checked out my charts, they might go back and check out the record. I'm not trying to make money off of the charts, they're free to download. I'm just hoping to inspire people to check out my music and maybe play along with a few of my records.

AAJ: It seems like jazz is taking a bit of a hit in most cities across the country, though in the past New York has always been a beacon of light in the jazz world, even in tough times. As someone who lives close to the city and is on the New York scene, what are your thoughts on the health of the jazz scene there today?

BDL: Every city looks great from the outside. I think that wherever they are, people complain about the scene. Having said that, New York has the best musicians in the world, and it's very cool to go and check out these amazing players night after night. There are a ton of gigs, but there are also a ton of players, so it's a tough scene to break into. Trying to make money in New York is difficult. I live in New Jersey, and it's actually much easier for me to get gigs and make a living playing here than in the city.

I don't actually pursue many gigs in New York so much any more. Practically speaking, I have a family and bills to pay, so I have to find gigs that will pay a decent amount of bread. Though people play in New York for different reasons than making money. A lot of the times the experience factor, getting to play with these amazing musicians, is worth enough on its own.

AAJ: What advice would you give to a young musician who's looking at doing jazz for a living?

BDL: To me, it's really important that people develop their own thing. I'm not saying I've totally achieved that, but it's something that I've worked hard to do. We all start out mimicking our heroes, but at some point we have to move on and do our own thing.

There are plenty of guys who play their butts off, but there aren't a lot of guys who have their own sound, compositional style or whatever. For me, finding a unique style of playing is one of the most important things and one of the hardest things to achieve.

Selected Discography
B.D. Lenz, Hit It and Quit (Apria, 2009)
B.D. Lenz, Straight Up (Apria, 2007)
B.D. Lenz, Tomorrow's Too Late (Apria, 2005)
B.D. Lenz, Simple Life (Apria, 2003)
B.D. Lenz, Lost and Found (Independent, 2000)
B.D. Lenz, Tell the World (Independent, 1997)

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