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B.D. Lenz: Finding His Own Voice

Matthew Warnock By

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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.
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