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Steve Lantner: An Introduction

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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.

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