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Krantz / Carlock / Lefebvre: Touching The Stars

Krantz / Carlock / Lefebvre: Touching The Stars

Courtesy Alessio Belloni

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This trio is the one place that feels like home. It just feels like what every musician wants to find every night–an outlet where you’re really being yourself, expressing what you want to express. That’s how this unit works and it’s a special, special thing.
—Keith Carlock
Guitarist Wayne Krantz has had a long, interesting and (some would say) iconic career. Along the way, he has reshaped his own style, delved heavily into the compositional and improvisational ends of the spectrum (often blurring the lines between them), and built a catalog that redefined what is possible both on his instrument and as a part of a group. But even in a career rife with left turns, reinventions and revolutionary periods, his KCL trio with bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Keith Carlock stands out as something of a phenomenon.

Since the three came together in the late '90s, Carlock and Lefebvre have gone on to garner reputations of their own, becoming first-call players for top-tier artists such as Sting and David Bowie. Nevertheless, the fact that the two have continually reunited for tours and records with Krantz over the years serves as a testament to the unique musical bond they share. Together, they exude a familial closeness, informality and humor that both flows from the deeply personalized musical unit they have forged over the years, and fortifies its buoyancy.

Wayne Krantz, Keith Carlock and Tim Lefebvre spoke with All About Jazz on a video conference call in late August 2022.

All About Jazz: So when did KCL first get together?

Wayne Krantz: 1997 was the first time we ever played together.

AAJ: How did the three of you first hook up?

WK: It was on a dating website... [laughs]

Tim Lefebvre: [imitating reading personal ad] "Looking for hot fusion musicians... " [laughs]

AAJ: I seem to recall Tim's name surfacing a little before KCL formed, from playing in Bluth.

TL: That's right. [former Krantz band member and Bluth drummer] Zach Danziger was kind of the glue for everyone that I met back then. He kind of put me on the map with a lot of people. We did that [Bluth] record and everyone thought we were completely bonkers. Wayne played on it that, so...

AAJ: How did you come into the picture, Keith?

Keith Carlock: I went to school at the University of North Texas and moved to New York near the end of 1996 / early 1997. I had checked out Long To Be Loose (Enja, 1993) and Two Drink Minimum, (Enja, 1995)—as did everyone at UNT, where it was hugely influential—and was already a fan of what Wayne was doing. So when I got to New York, I basically just went to the 55 [Bar] and bugged Wayne to give me a chance to play sometime. [laughs] I don't remember what I said, I was probably so nervous...

WK: No, no, you were cool...

KC: I remember Wayne was already playing with Tim and another drummer and I just let Wayne know I was there. I think [guitarist] Jimi Tunnell put in a good word for me.

WK: [laughs] It seemed like half of Texas was calling to tell me there was this great drummer coming to town that I had to check out.

AAJ: All those calls were unsolicited, right?

KC: I had like a whole campaign... [laughs]

TL: We had heard of you through Zach.

KC:Yeah, I had taken a lesson with Zach at Drummer's Collective and knew him from Wayne's trio and a few other records he was on. I guess Wayne was looking to change things up after Zach had left the band. It was just good timing for me to slip in there.

AAJ:Was the chemistry between the three of you pretty immediate?

WK: I think so...

TL: I think what it was was that Keith had this grid that wasn't as Dave Weckl-type fusiony as some of the other guys who had been doing the gig. It sounded like Tony Williams and John Bonham all at once—and this was before Keith really had [his style] fully developed, too. It reminded me of Stewart Copeland a little bit too and I thought, "Oh wow, this is going to be good."

It was easier for me to play with a guy like Keith, in his context, rather than a fusion guy because I'm not as chopsy or shreddy [a player]. The way Keith plays, I can play a whole note and it sounds good, you know what I mean? With these two guys, there was enough activity and groove shit going on that it sounded insane. Then, a couple of rehearsals in, Keith switched his kit around to the Yamahas, right?

KC: Yeah I was going for the more open-tuned [sound].

TL: Then we were off to the races.

WK: Remember that night we played L.A. somewhere, in the early days, and [Tribal Tech guitarist] Scott Henderson came to the gig? After the show I asked him, "How was it?" He said, "Well, I went to the sound man and suggested he take the kick drum down in the mix and he told me the kick drum wasn't miked... " [laughs]

AAJ: You run that pretty wide open, right?

KC:Yeah I run it completely wide open, there's nothing inside the drum. That became part of our sound too.

AAJ: That sound got a little better when you weren't recording off of someone's glasses, right?

[Author's note: There were a series of live albums by Krantz that were recorded direct to DAT, at the 55 Bar by audience member Dr. Mark Bubrowsky, by way of a pair of stereo mini-microphones mounted in his glasses.]

WK: Actually, I loved the sound we got with Mark's glasses.

AAJ: It was pretty amazing for what it was, for sure. It also lent a bit to the anticipation of what the group's first studio record Krantz Carlock Lefebvre (Abstract Logix, 2009) would sound like. I might add that in preparation for this interview, I revisited that record after not having heard it for a while, and it really sounded good.

WK: You sound surprised. [laughs]

AAJ: Well, here's the thing. You are a musician with a long career who has changed things up—sometimes radically—many times. For artists like yourself, it's not unusual for your fanbase to get attached to certain periods or paths you have explored, so it may take time for many fans to acclimate and fully appreciate all the different directions you choose to go in. That record just happened to strike me in a way it hadn't before. I guess I've finally caught up.[laughs] So speaking of studio records, is KCL going to record a new album?

WK: Not really officially. I mean, I wrote some new songs and it kind of has to come from that. We have to see what's happening musically to figure out if there's something new to record. Just speaking for myself, after making so many live records, I'm not so into making them anymore— at least for a while. So that means the studio, that means setting aside time and figuring out how to pay for it. Also, is there work that's happening afterward to warrant it? Is there music that's happening that really needs to be documented? I don't know. I'm not sure. I mean, I'm sure we will eventually, I just don't know when.

AAJ: The last time KCL was out, you included some older material for the trio to interpret. For the upcoming set of KCL dates, do ever consider material from an album like Write Out Your Head (Abstract Logix, 2020) for the band to take out for a spin?

WK: That's not really trio music.

AAJ: No, but you all seem to have the ability to take frameworks—trio-based or not—and run with them.

WK: True. Yeah, we have figured out how to cover almost anything. I think we could probably cover Beethoven's Fifth with a trio pretty well by picking out particular riffs we like and forgetting about the actual song. So in that way, yeah, we could but for whatever reason, I seem to be capable of writing new songs, so... If the choice is doing a new song or doing an old one, I'm always going to do the new one.

AAJ: Over the years, you've all branched out and had lots of other experiences—most famously Keith with Sting and Steely Dan, Tim with David Bowie and Tedeschi Trucks Band among many others. Has the chemistry of the trio changed from all of these outside musical experiences?

WK: It's gotten much worse. [laughs] No, I mean we have all changed, you know? Everybody has but I think the main difference with the band is that we don't live in the same town anymore. [Living in the same town] had a big impact on the initial energy. The fact that we all lived a stone's throw from each other and had that regular gig every Thursday night [at the 55 Bar] in that early period meant we could really explore a lot as a band. Between people getting busy and everybody moving, that [initial] part of it went away but was replaced with the fact that we've all kind of grown up a lot since then, musically. So we bring a whole different bunch of knowledge to it when we play now. That's fun and different for me and it's something that I keep in mind when I write for the trio. That's my take on it.

AAJ: Well KCL, to the observer's ear, always had something of an obvious uncommon group empathy and collective mojo to it and by design it seemed, the music flowed from that. You played together intensively for such a good stretch of time, it seems it might have required some adjustments in mindset to then go out and play in different situations. Any thoughts on that?

TL: [To Keith Carlock] His thought is a nice Malbec. [laughs]

I get stressed out playing those other gigs but I don't get stressed out playing with this band because it feels like home, you know? I did get comfortable in Tedeschi Trucks but now I'm playing a bunch of one-offs and it can be nerve-racking learning a bunch of music that you are never going to play again. And beyond learning the songs, I don't know that I actually learn anything from it, you know? This [trio] comes easy to me.

As far as how we've changed, honestly, back when we first started the trio, as a player, I feel like I was by far the worst person in the band. I feel like now I've sort of caught up to you guys in many ways now.

There was the whole stamina thing, doing long gigs at the [55] bar and keeping ideas generating was really hard because there was a lot of blowing. I feel like I have a bigger toolbox now and that makes life easier. So I feel like general personal growth has helped where the trio is now.

AAJ: So it was easy for you all to just pick back up where you left off?

WK: Pretty much.

KC: It's kind of like riding a bike. We do have such a long history that it's just like a chemistry that happens when we play together. I know for me, I'm not doing as much improvisational music as I used to, so it's a breath of fresh air for me when we get to play.

I'm in Nashville now and there's really none of that going on—that I'm a part of, anyway. Most of the work that I do is either sessions or tours that are very structured, like Steely Dan or whatever. I'm still being me but there are certainly boundaries there and my role is very specific. As much as I love that, with this band, pretty much anything goes. I can be creative and search—all that fun stuff that we used to do all the time. It brings back the creativity that I sometimes miss in my playing.

TL: Plus, Keith and I are big fans of Wayne's writing. It's part of our DNA at this point. It's next-level and I miss it. Nobody writes like him.

WK: [To Lefebvre] Nice of you to say, thank you.

TL: That'll be five dollars... [laughs]

AAJ: Is there a defacto mission statement for KCL?

WK: Just to be creative in the context of the groove. It sounds kind of basic and simple but it's actually very hard to be really creative and be responsible with the groove at the same time. It's not just the guys chugging away in the background while somebody takes a solo but actually improvising as a group.

When we started doing that, I wasn't aware of anybody who was doing it like we were, with that level of commitment to not relying on what we knew worked. It's thanks to Keith really, who brought a much deeper level of groove with this openness—that's really hard to find. It's easier to find now, thanks to him, because a lot of drummers have heard him do that.

It used to be that I could never sub the band out in the old days because there was nobody that played like these guys. Not in terms of the notes they were playing, but just the sensibility of it—the fact that it is possible to groove creatively—was kind of unheard of. Now there are younger players all over the world who have been influenced by that. But still, nobody sounds like these guys.

KC: [to Krantz] No one sounds like you either, that's for sure.

TL: Try as they might...

WK: But yeah, as long as the creativity is still happening on a deep level, that's all I need to be happy. I know that no matter what I play, these guys are going to try to make sense of it. I try to do the same for them. That's a big deal.

AAJ: It's also significant that, groove notwithstanding, the kind of improvisational freedom that you chase consistently as a group can be a daunting thing. It's like the effect that restrictions can be a freeing thing to creativity in some cases, only in reverse.

WK: But I wouldn't say we are totally free. There is never that, really. Even if you talk about free jazz guys without steady time, there are rules to that music. There are rules to our music too. We are always working within a framework and that's what allows us to do what we do. Without the frame being set, we have no canvas to paint on. It would be stuff flying out randomly. So we do have some rules that do what you are suggesting and it provides that structure for us to be free in.

It's actually kind of conservative in that way. It's funny how the band is so fringy in some ways and in others we are playing the most basic rhythmic forms that exist in Western music. There is nothing more basic than what we do—four and eight-bar phrases.

AAJ: KCL played at the GroundUp Festival in 2020. It was a scenario where there were a lot of people hearing you for perhaps the first time. In listening to what was one of the most incendiary sets I've ever heard the band play, I was trying to imagine how some of those people who walked up on KCL for the first time processed what you do, with little notion of any preconceived structure. I mean, you do have a framework, but I think it's a testament to you guys being able to take it out so far and explode it, that people may not even recognize it as a framework.

WK: Sure. I mean almost nobody can really track it from the outside. We've had really excellent, rhythmically intelligent musicians telling us that they had no idea what we were doing—which is fine as long as they still dig it. It's not really important that anybody understands it.

The thing I think about sometimes is that it's kind of like how African music is to me. Often I have no idea what it's about. I don't necessarily know where "one" is—or if it even exists—but I trust it because it grooves. I can just dig it without knowing anything about it. That's kind of what I hope for [people who come to see] us, because the fact is, no matter how much we're not clearly stating where we are, the three of us together know where we are. The second that we don't, the second I get lost—and that happens way too many times for these guys...

TL and KC: [laughs]

WK: ... I immediately turn to Keith, he tells me [where one is] and everything makes sense again. [laughs] If there's any confusion about where we are then nothing we're playing makes sense.

AAJ: KCL is such a live entity. Does the focus necessarily have to change when you go into the studio? It's hard to imagine you go into that setting trying to recreate what you do live.

WK: We did though, on Good Piranha, Bad Piranha (Abstract Logix, 2014). The whole trio didn't actually play at the same time but two-thirds of us tracked together. I'm really proud of that record in that I think we really got that [live] energy in the studio. I heard that record the other day and it just knocked me out, if I do say so myself. [laughs] That was the directive for that record. I wasn't sure we could do it without an audience in the studio, but we did. That wasn't the direction for the Krantz Carlock Lefebvre (Abstract Logix, 2009) record. That one was more about songs than Good Piranha, which was just blowing.

[To Carlock and Lefebvre] Do you remember what tunes we used a click [track] on for Good Piranha?

KC: I'm not sure. That was the first time we used it [for the improv-oriented stuff].

TL: I know we used a click pretty much for all of the KCL record.

WK: Keith's a master of playing loose and free with the click.

AAJ: Did you record with a click on Write Out Your Head (Abstract Logix, 2020)?

WK: Well no, there was no click on Write Out Your Head. There was a programmed Rhodes part that acted like a click and everybody played to that.

AAJ: One of the remarkable things on that album, knowing how tightly scripted the majority of the music needed to be, was how free and natural your drumming was, Keith. It made the whole album, which by its nature could have easily sounded mechanical, come alive.

WK: Sure did...

KC: Well, Wayne, you were a great producer on that, seriously.

WK: I can't believe we did it all in one day.

KC: One day... it was amazing. I was on the road, in the middle of a tour so my click chops were up. That helped a lot because everything was really structured and the charts were good. We just talked about it before I would run [through] it and it was... perfect. You were the perfect producer, obviously but we just nailed it— and it was really fun too. I love that record and I'm really proud of it.

AAJ: Tim, you played on that record too, right?

TL: One tune.

WK: That ["Magic 44"] was probably one of the most out things I've ever written.

TL: It was tricky. There were a lot of Finale [music software] instruments still in there, so it was pretty funny. It was great.

WK: (To Lefebvre) You nailed it.

TL: Did I? I may have I don't even know.

WK: I don't even think I edited [your take].

AAJ: So you're headed out again with some dates in the East, then the West Coast. I know Keith just got off the road with Steely Dan and I understand it may be a bit different playing SD dates vs KCL dates, but how does touring under the lingering threat of COVID affect you as a band?

WK: Good question.

TL: Well, this band has a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, so... [laughs] No, seriously, at this point, the reality for most musicians is, as long as you don't feel like total crap, you might as well just plow through. I mean, that's what people are doing, they're just not saying anything.

AAJ: I know that for a lot of bands, one person getting COVID can derail a whole tour and turn your only means of real income into a loss.

TL: At this point, if we're honest, unless people are on their deathbed they just keep going. We're all vaccinated, so...

KC:No, for this last year [with Steely Dan], it was a qualification. You had to be vaccinated to go on tour. I got all four shots, and I guess some [tours] are more strict than others but we got tested every single day. We had to wear a mask all the time unless you're eating or playing the show. I mean it was full-on and we still had an outbreak and had to cancel two weeks of shows. The entire tour was really strict. Also, Steely Dan is a pretty big entity and I don't know what kind of lawsuit they could get into or anything like that. I just know they had to do it how they did.

AAJ: Well, in light of all that, this may seem fairly mundane but when KCL played Philly last Winter, both Wayne and Tim were wearing masks and an immediate thought was how that was going to affect your communication and cues. Is that a real obstacle for you now in this band?

TL: No, that's a great question.

WK: Not [mundane] at all. We don't cue as much as we used to. We were really into that and it was part of our creative thing to have a whole bunch of cues that we would use. The great thing about all that was it created all of this contour in the music. There was a lot of change happening within the groove. To me, that's essential to keep it interesting.

Recently, we haven't been using that as much and we just kind of wing it but, I don't know. I was thinking I might not play with a mask for this tour. I'll wear it when we're travelling obviously, but... So, maybe we'll be able to do more cueing, which will be fun.

We used to do this thing where we would rehearse once a week and try to have a new cue every week. We would just think. "What could the music do? How could it change?" We would figure out a word to describe that and then rehearse it. It was fun.

[Lefebvre leaves the call.]

AAJ: Well it's pretty obvious to those who would listen that KCL has a rare synergy, that's also made apparent by its consistent reforming over years. How would you describe what it is that makes KCL special?

KC: It's hard to describe, which I think is a good thing. At the risk of verbalizing what has already been said, I think we all have a sense of time that works together really well. With the feel, the groove, what we call breaking it up, messing around with phrasing and the time feels, the cues, and the focus that we have together, to me it's something that's uniquely special. It's something that only happens when the three of us play together. I don't really have anywhere else I could do all this and it would work.

Like Tim said, this trio is the one place that feels like home. It just feels like what every musician wants to find every night—an outlet where you're really being yourself, expressing what you want to express. That's how this unit works and it's a special, special thing.

AAJ: The place where this trio formed, gelled and evolved into the unit it is, The 55 Bar, is now gone. Any thoughts on its passing?

KC: Oh my god, I just walked by there a few days ago when Steely Dan finished in New York. It was so sad man. The sign's off the wall outside. The actual bar has been taken out and it just looks like a tornado hit it. It's just... I mean that place meant so much to me, I could go on and on and on... but just to see that.

It's New York. I mean, these landlords don't care, man. It's all about what else can we get in here that makes more money. The history doesn't matter. What that place represents doesn't matter.

WK: We were super lucky to have had that, man. There was nothing that could touch [what we had at the 55 Bar]. We wouldn't have been able to do what we do without that place. It made it all possible.

Yeah, I was just thinking as Keith was talking and realizing that a big part of [what this trio] is... we played a lot, actually. We played at least once a week for years and years and during those times, we touched the stars so many times. We successfully did what we were trying to do—that being elevating everything to the place that transcends being good players, even. It's not even really about that.

It's this thing we were able to access—not every time, that would be impossible. But because we were able to play together so much, there were many, many, many times when we did access it. So we have that in our collective consciousness. We've been there. So when we play, even now all these years later, it's still possible for us to go there.

That's not something you share with that many people. It's this extraordinary musical experience you've had. You might have it again, and you might not. But the thing that we've kind of learned to do over the years is that, even when we're not at that "accessing the universe" sort of level, we're still pretty good. Just the fact that we're trying to get there, I believe, makes it valid for any audience. They can take part in us trying to get there.

There are those people who come to our shows that have never heard us and don't know what to expect, but honestly, most people that generally come to see us know what they're in for, and they're down with it. They're down with these guys trying to improvise and create something new, something for the moment, in that rarified air. So they're pretty patient with us. They know it can't happen every time, but they know it's going to rock either way.

I definitely feel the audience was a huge part of what we achieved in the old days, and that continues. For that, I feel like we are really lucky in this world.

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