Wayne Krantz: Back on Track

Ian Patterson By

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Guitarist Wayne Krantz is one of the great non-conformists. An improviser who avoids stylistic limitations and cliche like the plague, his music draws from diverse elements and welds them sonically to create something quite personal.

Krantz has turned his back on recording studios for the last 15 years, choosing instead to release live shows through his own Website. After a month or so, these recordings are removed, as Krantz has little interest in the work which lies behind him and is always searching for new challenges. Like a painter with a new canvas, his palette always throws up some interesting new colors.

A decade-and-a-half later, and reunited with long-term associates bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Keith Carlock, Krantz has returned to the recording studio and released Krantz Carlock Lefebvre (2009) on Abstract Logix. It is a stirring, powerful statement full of groove, grinding rock, melodism and imagination, and it's a fitting testament to one of the great electric trios of our times.

All About Jazz: The new album is a sizzler; I guess you must be really pleased with the way it's turned out?

Wayne Krantz: Thanks. I think it's really good. We took some time with it, went over-budget on mixing, agonized over some detail.

AAJ: It's been 15 years since you last recorded in a studio; why did you stay away from the studio process for so long?

WK: I got into this independent thing. I didn't want to use a label because I wanted to make some kind of income from the recordings and the only companies that looked approachable—not that I ever tried approaching any—weren't selling many records. But I couldn't afford to make studio recordings on my own, at least the way I would have wanted to.

At the same time the music itself was so rooted in the live thing—the meaning of it was so connected to a gig and an audience—that it felt wrong to me to record it in a studio. We tried once but ended up bagging it.

AAJ: Why did you decide to go back into the studio for this CD?

WK: I'd done a bunch of live records and was getting a little bored with the process, frankly. But mainly I needed to try to add some kind of vocal element and wanted the clarity of a studio to present that for the first time. Plus the band with Tim [Lefebvre] and Keith [Carlock] deserved to be well recorded. Lots of long-suffering fans had tolerated the two-track stuff for years. And I'd like to take this opportunity to thank them for that!

AAJ: How much of the decision to record in a studio was because of the involvement of Abstract Logix? How did you get together with Abstract Logix and what has the experience been like?

WK: They happened to offer something at exactly the time I was considering all this. What's the word... "propitious"? It was a propitious moment so I jumped. They've been great. I'm a little weird, though. I'm having to reign in some anti-promotional instincts that have been ruling my behavior for some time now. I can't indulge all that when somebody else's ass is on the line. It wouldn't be fair.

AAJ: Your previous trio releases have been live, and this record has a live feel to it—by which I mean it sounds spontaneous and full of raw energy. What was you intention with this CD before going into the studio?

WK: Well, it was live, in the sense that we all tracked together. I wouldn't approach recording this lineup any other way. It's what we're good at. That's not always reason enough to do something, but this band needs to be heard doing its thing. Really, desperately, it needs to be heard. That energy you're talking about is improvisation. It has a different energy than composition, a different power.

AAJ: How much of the music was composed and how much was improvised?

WK: This one's a little more compositional than the last few, though the line is more blurred than ever. For example, anything that sounds like a "solo section" on this record is completely improvised, which means there were absolutely no instructions to anyone about what to play when those sections happened. No chords, no feel, no key, no groove, no style, no role—nothing. But instead of sounding free, those sections end up sounding predetermined, even though none of them will ever happen that way again.

So they have the strength of the compositional thing, but also have the improvisational energy you're talking about. To my knowledge that's not really being pulled off much these days, or any days. It's as spontaneous as almost anything else out there—but it sounds like a highly organized rock/funk/pop/electronica/blues/groove/something-else band. That's not essential information for somebody to be able to like it. It's something that impresses me, though.

The spontaneity of what I do and of what this band does is why I would ever think to call it jazz. To me jazz isn't a language, a vocabulary, a sound, a groove, or even a history. It's an approach to playing, a commitment to creating spontaneously. We happen to do it in the context of a deadly groove, but in terms of improvisation, that's no different than doing it in the context of swing or of no groove, or no pulse or whatever.

Sure, not every note we play ends up being new or without precedent, but our orientation is always on exploding the moment—blowing it up—right in people's faces, cutting to the quick of creative action and getting to the freshest stuff. I always felt that's what jazz was supposed to do.

AAJ: I like that definition of jazz as a commitment to spontaneous creation—it kind of widens the playing field. Had the three of you played any of this music live before, and was there much in the way of rehearsals before recording, or did you just go in and thrash it out?

WK: It's almost all new music. We rehearsed a couple of times and had a gig the night before the recording where we played a few of the songs live for the first time. We had the composition more or less under our hands when we got to the studio, I think. Then, the thrashing ensued.

AAJ: The playing is superb, I guess in large part it's because you know each other's playing so well after a dozen years or so: what are the particular strengths of Tim or Keith?

WK: Thanks, but knowing each other doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be superb, unfortunately. If we could count on that we wouldn't have to work so hard. It's a demanding approach, in ways that even great players sometimes have to adjust to for the music to work. Standard roles for bass and drums don't always apply, and though I've gotten better at describing it to people there's still an x-factor.

Lefebvre was in on the ground level of the thing and Carlock came soon after, so they both really, really know what it's about and how to push it the right way. Tim hears everything—repeat, everything—and, among other things, figures how to turn it into something tonally intelligible. Mistakes, ring modulator stuff, ultra-distorted stuff...he fields anything.

It puts a lot of responsibility on me, because everything matters. Some people play chromatically to cope with obscure tonalities, but he actually gets in there and deals with it specifically. He's a musician, unlike myself, who only plays what will sound good in a given moment. If nothing will sound good, he doesn't play anything. One of the great improvisers. And I'm not talking about something so mono-functional as turning in a good solo, I mean somebody who can forge incredible sounding music in real-time, in a band context. Also one of the baddest grooves out there.

Carlock is a fantastic improviser and orchestrator, too. With all the incredible stuff he does, all the colors, melodies, phrases and sounds he plays, the inventiveness of it. The incredible feel and unstoppable groove—with all that, the thing that inspires me most is his spiritual connection to everything he plays. I've heard him in tons of different situations over the years—little gigs, big gigs, rehearsals, recording sessions, you name it—and he's always connected to the music in exactly the same way.

It's a total connection, with little room for distraction, second guessing, self-criticism, ego. It's pure. To me it's not even about the drums with him, anymore. It's just this beautiful, silvery music thing that happens when he plays.

They both have a profound understanding of shape and form, too. That's a biggie.

AAJ: Is there ever a danger of falling into some sort of comfort zone when you know the other musician's playing so well? How do you keep it fresh when your on stage together for many years?

WK: Almost all music that exists is being played in a comfort zone. Most music depends on that to function correctly, to be listenable. It's relatively rare that invention and risk are what makes the music worth playing and listening to.

Speaking for myself, I don't find improvisation particularly comfortable. I'm usually suspicious if I'm feeling overly comfortable on a particular night. The recordings of nights like that almost never make the cut when it's time to put a live record together.

We break it up all the time. If it gets boring, we change it. We don't treat the songs like we owe them anything. The better we know a song, the more we can adapt it to our immediate needs, whatever they might be. It took us a while to figure out how to make something from almost nothing. Once we did, re-invention became more or less a mission statement.

AAJ: Let's talk about some of the songs. Tell me about the inspiration for "Rushdie"?

WK: The inspiration was a memorial for a friend who once said he respected the writer. "Rushdie," "Mosley" and another song that didn't make the record, "Tabackin," were all written in memoriam for him, I guess you could say. "Rushdie" seems apt too for its mix of prettiness and rock 'n' roll, like some of Salman Rushdie's stuff I've read.

AAJ: On "Rushdie," at about two minutes, you quote something which I've been wracking my brains to remember but I can't—what is it?

WK: I'm not aware of it. I'll listen for it next time I hear it.

AAJ: You've said that you get annoyed when you hear another voice in your playing; could you expand on that comment a little?

WK: I think I was talking more generally about influence, that I wouldn't want to constantly remind the listener of somebody else when I play. But sometimes I trip over things that I've heard when I'm playing. There's this one melody that turns up a lot...I don't know what it is—something from the '80s, maybe a Grace Jones hook or something. About once a year some fragment from a jazz standard falls out, which makes no sense. It's funny, really.

AAJ: How difficult is it to keep your music free of others' voices, because I guess any "contamination"—I don't know if that's an appropriate word—must happen subconsciously?

WK: The hard part is breaking away initially. Once you come into your own you're free to play anything without fear of losing yourself.

AAJ: "It's No Fun Not to like Pop": is this a comment on the bombardment from all sides of pop music and the poor exposure given more creative music?

WK: I hadn't considered that interpretation, exactly, but that doesn't make it wrong. It just seemed kind of funny, I guess, this pop-sounding riff against that lyric. And then that sort of wistful part, somebody wishing for better pop to listen to, maybe...then all this wild, pop-inspired ensemble improvisation. I mean, it's never fun not to like anything, right?

AAJ: You sing a little on the album: is an entirely vocal album something you would like to do one day?

WK: Sure. It's all about balancing it with the music the right way. If I can figure out how to do that for a whole record—if whole records even exist by then—I will.

AAJ: How confident are you as a singer/lyricist?

WK: About as confident as I sound. At least now I know I'm capable of doing it. That's progress.

AAJ: For me, one of the best tracks on the album is "Jeff Beck." Tell me about Jeff Beck's influence on you? He's often called the guitarists' guitarist; what is it that sets him apart from other guitarists?

WK: To be honest I hadn't heard much of him until I went to a show some years ago at Roseland. He knocked me out. Then I heard him recently at the Fillmore and he did it again, but even harder. He's the real thing. I mean he's an honest-to-god rock player with his own language.

That basically sort of doesn't happen anymore. Nothing he plays sounds derivative, even if it occasionally is. It all sounds like it's coming from the source. I can't call him an influence 'cause I didn't hear him at that stage of my development, but I now think he's incredible. Fortunately, there's no such thing as somebody being the best in music, so I don't have to worry about him. I can just dig it.

AAJ: The music on this CD is a real old mixture of styles—funk grooves, drum and bass, rock, there's tremendous shredding, there's a pop feel to a couple of songs, acoustic stuff, furious trio interplay, melodic stuff—is it tiresome to you when people ask you what sort of music you play?

WK: The question isn't tiresome, it's reasonable. What's tiresome is not having an answer for it. Someday I will. In the meantime it's whatever inane response I can come up with in the moment. I can't even think of one today, so I'll use one that Rocky Bryant came up with years ago: Exciting.

Selected Discography

Wayne Krantz, Krantz Carlock Lefebvre (Abstract Logix, 2009)
Wayne Krantz, Your Basic Live '06 (Independent, 2007)
Chris Potter, Underground (Universal Music, 2006)
Wayne Krantz, Your Basic Live (Independent, 2003)
David Binney, Balance (Act Music, 2001)
Victor Bailey, Low Blow (ESC Records, 1999)
Wayne Krantz/Leni Stern, Separate Cages (Alchemy records,1996)
Wayne Krantz, 2 Drink Mimimum (Enja Records, 1995)
Leni Stern, Ten Songs (Lipstick Records, 1992)
Wayne Krantz, Signals (Enja Records, 1991)

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