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Bob Lanzetti: Snarky Guitars, Part 2


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For the second installment in our series on the guitarists of Snarky Puppy, we spoke with Bob Lanzetti. In addition to being the guitarist who logged the most miles with the band in its early days, he has also appeared on every recording SP has ever released. In 2017, Lanzetti independently released his debut solo album Whose Feet Are These That Are Walking? He is also a member of the band Bokanté and leads his own quartet. Lanzetti spoke with All About Jazz from his home in Brooklyn in December of 2019.

All About Jazz: So what's been on your agenda lately?

Bob Lanzetti: I just finished a tour with my own band about a month ago and it was cool, really fun. I recorded a couple of the shows so I think I might actually put out a live record eventually. I'm also working on a project recording a number of the Two-Part Inventions by Bach. I just did a session [for it] with a band—two guitarists, bass and drums -it's kind of crazy. The rest of them will just be duos with other guitar players.

AAJ: Do you know who yet?

BL: Brad Williams is one. He's a great guitarist who plays with [drummer] Nate Smith often, as well as Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. We went to college together and have been friends for years. He's doing one. Jordan Peters— who has done some stuff with Bokanté— he's doing one so it should be fun. But yeah, that's what I'm working on at the moment.

AAJ: You came in pretty much on the ground floor with Snarky Puppy. Do you want to talk a little about the arc of the band from then until now, from your perspective?

BL: Sure. Me and Mike [Michael League] and a lot of the guys have known each other since the University of North Texas and have played together in a bunch of different groups—in school and out of school. At a certain point, Mike said he wanted to make a record with a nonet. Just because he said nonet, I had Birth of the Cool, the Miles record, in my head. He came up with the name Snarky Puppy and everything, but it seemed to me like we were just making a Mike League solo record. It was kind of funny, we made that record [The Only Constant (Sitmom Records, 2006)] and I moved to New York immediately after that. Then a year later he called and said he wanted to make another one and I was like, "Oh shit, really?" (laughs) It was kind of surprising. Then the band started touring and at a certain point we realized that this was going to be a real thing we would be doing. Before we knew it—well actually not, it took a long time—we were starting to gain momentum. Then a lot of us started playing in Dallas with people like Robert Searight and Shaun Martin and gradually, some of those guys started joining the group. They really changed everything so much because they were coming from a completely different world. That really helped. Once that happened, I felt that we started to get the sound that really defines the band.

AAJ: Did you play on this most recent (2019) tour?

BL: Yeah. It was a long tour so Chris McQueen, Mark Lettieri and I pretty much split it up evenly. I did Australia and Asia in the Spring and a bunch of the U.S. dates and then Europe in July. It was a good run for all of us, I think.

AAJ: The venues the band plays seem to be getting nicer and the audience appears to be growing. I saw that one gig on this tour was the Royal Albert Hall...

BL: Yeah. I unfortunately wasn't on that. I saw that one [on the schedule] and was like, "Oh my god, this is a good one." (laughs) I think Mark was on that one. But yeah, the crowds have been great and the whole thing is as good or better than ever. Even since the old, tough days, it seems to have always been moving in the right direction. That's probably why we all kept on doing it.

AAJ: You've appeared on every Snarky Puppy record. Are there stand out moments in the catalog for you—as a player or collectively as a band?

BL: I think one of the best musical experiences of my life was making Family Dinner Vol 2 (GroundUp, 2016) because of playing with people like Charlie Hunter, Susanna Baca and David Crosby of course. All of the guests on that record were just so great and so many of them were heroes of mine. That was pretty special just having them all in the same room—just looking around, I was like, "Oh my god..."—and then the music was so much fun to make.

AAJ: Wasn't that whole Family Dinner concept was something the band started doing at the Rockwood Music Hall in Brooklyn, shortly after making the move to New York?

BL: Well I had been here [New York] for a while and then Mike League moved here Then shortly after we started doing that. We would have a Rockwood residency with two or three guests on each gig. We would just play two or three songs with each of them and that would be the gig. So that's when the [Family Dinner] idea started and eventually Mike had the idea of making an album [that way]. That was a lot of fun.

I guess the other album that I really liked was Culcha Vulcha (GroundUp, 2016). It was the first time we had been in the studio like that in years. By that point we had all recorded with so many other bands and had so much more individual experience, it was really exciting to make a record like that again.

AAJ: You have some writing credits for tunes scattered throughout the Snarky Puppy repertoire. What happens when you submit a tune to to the band? What's the process?

BL: Basically, if you write a song that you think will work with the band, you send the demo to Mike and see what his feeling is about it. Nine times out of ten, we'll at least try it. The songs are pretty much completed when the composer brings them in and then as a band we will arrange things. We'll move the melody around to different instruments to see which works best, stuff like that. And a lot of times, the tunes won't even come up until we're at the recording session. Mike will send out an email saying, "Tomorrow, we are going to work on these three songs." Everyone will go home and shed the parts as best they can. Then the next day we start rehearsing them, figuring them out piece by piece. It might take two or three hours to record the song, depending on how hard it is. From there we'll start building overdubs. So basically you write a tune, send it to Mike and we're probably going to try it at least.

AAJ: There were many compositions on your solo debut, Whose Feet Are These That Are Walking? (self-produced, 2017), that were surprising in that they showed influences that didn't necessarily surface in your work with Snarky Puppy up to that point—specifically Americana and roots-rock leanings. Were you holding a lot in your pocket so to speak?

BL: Sort of. I mean, at a certain point I had really gotten into great songwriters and producers and some of my favorite things were Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. I just got into really great American songs. And or course, I've always been into classic rock as well. I started writing tunes with those influences but I just thought those were tunes that just didn't make sense with Snarky. I just had them laying around until I had enough of them where I thought it was probably a good time to make a solo record. So it has its own kind of vibe that's really different from Snarky.

I haven't really sat down and tried to write something for Snarky specifically. If it happens that I'm writing something that might work, then I'll send it in and see what happens.

AAJ: It's interesting that you, Mark Lettieri and Chris McQueen are such different players. How would you characterize the others' styles? What do you see in their playing that you like?

BL: I love both of those guys, They are two of my favorite players around. Yeah, we are all really different, which I think is partially a testament to Mike too. I think he's really great at finding the right guys that are similar enough, yet different enough to not get in the way but also add something to the music. Mark, to me, is super funky and he has this rock thing with the funk thing that is just undeniably awesome. I love playing with him. Then Chris, he does a lot of interesting things with sound, he's a great improviser and great accompanist. He's also a very thoughtful kind of player. Playing with both of those guys makes me better so that's obviously a good thing. It is kind of funny that you can have three guitar players playing the same songs and all sound totally different. It's a treat.

AAJ: In looking through and listening back to many things in the band's catalog, one of the stand-out moments for you is the solo spot in the tune "What About Me." While much of your playing can be markedly eloquent and terse, you also have this kind of daredevil side, as in the song I mentioned, where you are obviously hanging it all out there, letting the chips fall where they may. Would you like to speak to that dichotomy in your playing or that solo specifically?

BL: The solo section in that song is really wide open because it's just drums and guitar. You can go anywhere you want harmonically. I'm into a lot of free music—like Bill Frisell's stuff but even Derek Bailey and Ornette Coleman. That probably found its way into that [solo] a little bit. But there have been nights where I play funky-type stuff, bluesy stuff, lots of effected stuff, more linear type stuff... it really can go anywhere which is what makes it fun. It's also great to hear other players and instruments solo there too. I've heard Mark and Chris both solo in that section... [violinist] Zach Brock, [Keyboardist] Justin Stanton... It's great to hear all the different approaches.

AAJ: That's another interesting thing about Snarky Puppy. Each time you perform, not only might you have different players in the band but also different levels of instrumentation in sections of the band. You might have two guitarists and one keyboard player or one guitarist and three keyboard players, extra horns or a violin. It's always different so the solos and melody lines get handed out differently all the time. It's an interesting dynamic.

BL: Yeah, that keeps it fun and keeps you on your toes too. The melodies getting switched around is partially due to whoever else happens to be on stage. If we're missing a horn player, then maybe the guitar will pick up the melody to make it a little more present -just to make sure that the most important parts shine through on any given section. I have to admit, once in a while, Mike has said to play the melody and I didn't know it. (laughs) You feel like a failure but then it's like, "Alright, I guess I have to work on this song a little bit." It's good at the end of the day though because it keeps everyone alert and on their toes. You can't really get too comfortable because you never know what's coming.

We never really do two guitars much anymore but if we do, it's probably because we're down to one keyboard for some reason.

AAJ: What's the minimum amount of keyboards you generally have?

BL: We usually have at least two keyboards but Justin usually plays keys and trumpet. If we have a gig where it's only Justin and another keyboard, Mike will usually try to bring in a second guitarist or a third keyboard if possible.

AAJ: It's funny because in the rest of the world, two keyboard players in a band is generally the real anomaly.

BL: (laughs) Yeah, our band has a lot of anomalies...

AAJ: You also play with Bokanté, which also has some interesting instrumental dynamics. How do you alter your approach for that band?

BL: Well, whatever band you're in, you're going to try and serve the song—that's first and foremost. The instrumentation changes what you are going to do. Bokanté has three guitars all the time so I end up being freed up to play textural and effects stuff. I do a lot of those kinds of things in that band, in addition to [playing] parts— which is really fun. In Snarky, most of the time there's just one guitarist onstage so you're just covering a lot of parts— sometimes more than what one guitar should be playing. That's the main difference between the two. But then in Bokanté, we also have [lap steel player] Roosevelt Collier.

AAJ: So, in effect, there are actually four guitars in Bokanté...

BL: Yeah, it is four really. Rosie is playing a lot of parts and soloistic stuff, like I said even that role isn't open to me sometimes. It's actually kind of fun because it makes me try and reach for things I wouldn't normally do.

AAJ: So you have the four guitarists and a bassist on one side of the stage with three percussionists on the other, flanking [singer] Malika Tirolien.

BL: Yeah, I'm sure it's a similarly strange gig for them. I'm sure none of them ever get to play in a band with two other percussionists.

AAJ: Do any of them play an actual drum kit onstage?

BL: Well, Andre [Ferrari] is playing a percussion set up that's closest to a kit. He has a bass drum. That's kind of it though. I don't think anybody has any cymbals or toms or anything. He has a frame drum that he kind of uses like a snare in back-beats, but...

AAJ: I have to ask. What is the thing that he has in his mouth all the time?

BL: It's a grouse pipe. Some kind of bird call thing. If you blow into it a certain way it will make a bird sound. Andre does this thing where it sounds like a backwards drum. It's pretty amazing.

AAJ: So I understand Bokanté is up for a Grammy this year for What Heat? (Real World, 2018)...

BL: Yeah, it's exciting. I'm going to have to dust off my tux again.

AAJ: Let's go back a little. Before North Texas, You studied with Vic Juris, David Fiuczynski and Chris Buono —all players with very different styles. What did you take away from your time with each of them?

BL: Well, Chris Buono and I grew up in the same town on the Jersey shore. He's a little bit older than me, but not that much older. When we met I was 16 and he was 22, and I thought he was like the best guitarist in the world. He's a fantastic player and a great teacher. He was really the guy that showed me what it was going to be like to do this for a living, for real. Before then I had no idea. I wanted to be Jimmy Page or something. He was the one who showed me it was possible to be a professional musician and not be a superstar. Seems like a simple thing now but when you're that age, with no experience... You don't realize all the stuff behind the scenes and session work and all [those] kinds of things. So he was great in showing me the path. Chris also introduced me to Vic and Fiuczynski.

Fiuczynski I only got a few lessons with actually. He and Chris are good friends so he subbed for Chris a couple of times and I also went up and got some lessons from him separately. Fuczynski was very influential on me in the way he would fuse punk rock and elements of free jazz, like Eric Dolphy. That combination of worlds really opened my eyes to the notion that you don't have to play an archtop like Joe Pass to play jazz. He made me realize there are so many things you can do. I loved that 1995 [Screaming Headless Torsos] record (Discovery WEA, 1995). It was such a great combination of things and him just being able to use all of the guitar and bend strings. Jazz guys weren't supposed to bend strings! He showed there's no reason you can't use all those things.

Vic Juris was the guy I studied with right before college. His knowledge of tunes and harmony and his lines are just so deep. It was really great studying with someone like that. We would play Wayne Shorter and George Benson tunes and transcribe things. It was pretty heavy.*

[*Interviewer's note: Vic Juris passed away on 12/31/19, shortly after this interview was conducted. Lanzetti adds a postscript below:

I have probably about 15 cassette tapes and probably 3 manuscript books filled with inspiring information from Vic. I used to drive about an hour and a half to his house and back with a crappy car once a week, every week, for that experience and it was worth every second. One of the best teachers I ever had and a fantastic player and guy. RIP Vic.]

AAJ: You flat-out jazz side isn't often directly evident in your playing.

BL: There was a period where I was playing a lot of jazz, a lot of bebop, especially in school. I've always been into other things though—Prince, Sly and the Family Stone, Radiohead—so all that stuff was always there too. I definitely spent a lot of time playing jazz though.

AAJ: So you and most of the guys in Snarky Puppy went through the UNT jazz program, correct?

BL: About half of us.

AAJ: Are there any detectable signs that you can tell if a player has been through the UNT program? Or by contrast, does a player from say, Berklee have a tell that you can hear?

BL: That's an interesting question. I think so. It's more like if you find out later that a player is from a certain school, it's like, "Yeah, that makes sense." I guess Berklee has a certain sound just like North Texas has a sound. Maybe that's as much a product of being in the school as it is being in the scene that surrounds it.

AAJ: You mention on your website that you have participated in some sort of musical outreach programs at Carnegie Hall. Can you tell a little about what those were like?

BL: Carnegie Hall had these programs, and I would assume they still do, that work with kids in juvenile hall. We would write songs with the kids— some of them would rap, some of them would sing—and then we would hold a concert. I did one of those and then another that was sort of the same thing, but for older people who were incarcerated at Sing Sing.

It was a pretty special experience to work with these people, especially the kids. I only did two of them but it's an ongoing program. It's pretty awesome.

AAJ: Did you find that kids today have a different view of music than when you grew up?

BL: That's a good question. When I first moved to New York around 2006, I taught a lot. I was teaching at music stores and smaller music schools. Then later, around when Youtube became a thing I started teaching online. Now when I teach, it's mostly to people who are into Snarky Puppy and have contacted me directly, through the internet. Most of them are in their 20's and I don't get a sense that they are much different in the way they view music, because we are into the same things. But, I will say that many people who are younger, especially in their teens, seem like they learn so much from Youtube or Instagram. They build careers there too. There's the keyboardist, Domi Degalle, she's amazing. She plays with Ghost Note sometimes and JD Beck and tons of others. She posts tons on Instagram. Then there's guys like Jacob Collier, who started by making videos on Youtube.

When I was growing up, none of that even existed. The way we learned, yeah it was very different but I don't know if it was better or worse necessarily. The kids I hear today are great, but great in a totally different way. Some have these amazing chops and I'm just like, "Damn, I can't do any of that..." (laughs). When I was growing up, there was no internet, there was only CDs. I would get a record with the little money that I had, and that would be all I'd have to listen to. And I would end up checking out that record so much before moving on. The good thing now is that you can access anything. The bad thing I suppose is that you might be more likely to skim past things without getting as much out of it as you could. Or skim past things because you don't like them, when you might love them if you gave them more time. It's amazing to think of the educational implications of this interesting new world.

AAJ: You mentioned at the outset that you recently completed a tour of the midwest with the Bob Lanzetti Band. Any thoughts on the bandleading experience?

BL: Well, it's so much more work than just being a sideman, it's unbelievable. It's great though. There's a lot more responsibility and a lot less free time when you're on the road. It's nice to get out there and play your own music—do your own thing, you know? This tour was the longest we've done yet. It was also the best one we've done musically, I think. I'm really happy about that. Like I said, I think I might put out a live record of it. I'm really excited about the way [the recordings] came out.

Usually the band consists of guitar, bass, drums and pedal steel but our pedal steel player, Philip Sterk , was unavailable. Our drummer Jordan Perlson lives in Nashville now and had recommended this fantastic guitarist, Mike Seal, to play a gig with us down there. It was so much fun that I asked Mike to play as second guitarist on the rest of the tour. It was a lot of fun playing that music with two guitars. I think Mike is going to be on the Bach project I'm working on too.

AAJ: Not too long ago, you also had some interesting side gigs playing with Jerry Granelli and Robben Ford was also in the band. How was that experience?

BL: That was amazing. That gig came about because Jerry and Charlie Hunter are friends. Jerry asked Charlie to do the gig but he couldn't do it so Charlie recommended me. It was a tour for a record that Jerry put out a few years ago which had Bill Frisell and Robben Ford [on it]. I was sure Robben wouldn't be on the tour. Then I was like, "Robben Ford's really on the gig? Are you kidding me?!?" (laughs) That was great playing with all those guys but, as a guitarist, to get to play with Robben was really fun. Yeah, I was a little scared but he was super cool and we got along really well. He actually came out and sat in with my band in Nashville. It's been great to have an ongoing relationship with him.

Except for one gig in Rochester, that was a ten-show Canadian tour that started in Vancouver and made its way across Canada. It was great because the core band was just two guitars, bass and drums. We had some horns too but they were pick-up horn section that was changing every night. All of the melodies were Robben and me and most of the solos were Robben and me. It was great to really play with him like that— playing harmonized guitar parts and soloing together. It was a treat for sure. Hopefully there will be more [of those gigs]. Jerry and I have been talking about it.

AAJ: Among your other extracurriculars, you've also composed music for the Allen Dance Company. The one piece that you posted on your website, "Motor," is strikingly different from both your solo work and your work with Snarky Puppy. Talk about your approach to doing that music.

BL: That [work] definitely speaks to some of my abstract influences. The [dance] piece was based on this book, "Motorman," by David Ohle. Ohle was an intern or something for William S. Burroughs so it's "out." Burroughs' stuff is out, but the Ohle stuff may be even more out. I read the book and I was like, "What the hell?" (laughs)... but I was super into it too. I read it like three times. I watched the dance that they had recorded—which had no soundtrack— then I tried to tell the story through how the book and the dance were speaking to me, the sounds I imagined. I got together with a friend of mine, Ross Pederson—who's a great drummer and engineer—and we recorded like a million guitar tracks. We basically put it together mostly through post[-production]. What that music is most related to, by my ears, is David Lynch, who is actually a huge influence on me— probably just as much as any kind of music.

There was another piece I did [for the dance company] that was for a live show. I think there is a video of it but I'd have to track it down. That one was much longer— forty-five minutes—and was, for lack of a better way to describe it, more like a Steve Reich-type thing but consisting of all electronic percussion instruments.

AAJ: Do you see more of those types of projects in your future?

BL: Not necessarily, but if things like that come up and it's something I want to do, then yeah. Those kinds of things aren't things I put on my radar to do in the future.

AAJ: What are some things you are looking to do?

BL: I'm interested in doing this Bach project. It will probably be more like a web-based series. I'm thinking about recording a bunch of them and then when they're all ready to go, posting one a week. The idea is to do an interesting sound concept for each one of them. I partially got the idea from Wendy Carlos' Switched On Bach (Columbia Masterworks, 1968). Have you heard that? I thought it was so cool to use modern instrumentation to play that music. The other thing is that the music is just so well written that it really doesn't matter what instrument you play it on, it always sounds good. Those two things made me want to do it. One piece might be two guitars with Fuzz Factory [pedals] and another might be with some kind of delays or something. That kind of thing.

I also would like to make another record with my band, so I'm writing for that now—slowly, but doing it. Hopefully we can record one relatively soon.

AAJ: Well Bob, best of luck with the new projects and thanks for taking the time out to talk.

BL: You bet and thank you.

Photo credit: Stella K.

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