Wayne Krantz: Inspired Transition

Ian Patterson By

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It's taken guitarist Wayne Krantz the guts of twenty years to pen a CD of songs with lyrics and sing them. Howie 61 (Abstract Logix, 2012) is a departure from the music he has recorded previously, though Krantz, Carlock, Lefebvre (Abstract Logix, 2009) hinted at this new direction. There's less guitar work than might be expected from Krantz on this striking collection of compositions, but that maybe goes hand-in-hand with greater compositional depth. It's certainly got something to do with Krantz's changing relationship with his instrument, which he describes—intriguingly—as an "inspiring transition."

Whilst Krantz is reluctant to view himself as a singer, he does a standup job on Howie 61. His half-spoken, quietly sung approach falls somewhere between Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, but with a quirkier lyrical side that goes from brooding introspection to throwaway pop fun. The music, however, is never less than absorbing. Gone is the trio format, and in its place Krantz experiments with duo, quartet and quintet formations, roping in some of the finest creative musicians today, to give life to his songs. There's space for electronics and his well-used ring modulator, and—in a sign of Krantz's new musical highway—on one track there's no guitar at all; to quote Dylan's Abe: "Man, you must be puttin' me on."

All About Jazz: A lot of musicians say they can't listen to recently recorded music as they're overly familiar with it. Can you listen to Howie 61?

Wayne Krantz: There's usually a period where I listen to my records a lot once they're done and they exist as objects. Once that period is over I don't tend to listen to them. With Howie 61 I'm still very much in the listening period. I really like listening to it and I listen to it once a day at least.

AAJ: The album title is intriguing, as are the lyrics to the title track; could you tells us about the inspiration there?

WK: The album title was really just a song title and initially I wasn't really thinking of it as the album title. The song was just some word play on [Bob Dylan's] "Highway 61," The wordplay just seemed amusing. A lot of times that's how my songs tend to start lately, especially the songs with words. They start as titles. I keep a list of song titles to develop. With that one I just started writing words for it and I tried to imagine what this amusing title would be about. I went through the process of developing the words and ultimately there were a lot of words.

I used the form of "Highway 61" which is basically an extended blues form to base this tune on, though musically there's really nothing in common. It's kind of talky so it seems Dylan-esque to me but it's not like I was trying to do that. It just fell out that way.

AAJ: After 15 years or so away from the recording studio you've now done two great records in studios in three years; has this had something to do with the fact that vocals are more suited to studio recording?

WK: That's a nice question. It's certainly true. I knew that if I was going to add vocals to the music then I wanted it to be in a studio environment simply because I needed to find out how to do it. I knew I wanted to add that element in the studio; I didn't just want to add that element on the fly to my usual recording setup, which is extremely basic—there are no overdubs and it's simply editing of live two-track material.

But also, it had been a very, very long time of making live record after live record and I just felt like I'd kind of done that enough and it was time to do something different. So, it was a combination of that and the addition of the vocal element.

AAJ: On Howie 61 there 18 musicians; how did this large number of musicians affect the recording process?

WK: That too was a reaction against what I'd been doing because I hadn't done anything else except make a straightforward group record since 1991. For my first record I had a miscellany of friends on it. But from my second record on, every one of my records has been a group record, and I've had trios, so every single one of them has been a dedicated trio record. That too, I felt I'd explored as far as I could, for now.

It was recorded in L.A., New York and London, so there was the traveling around and trying to work out which rhythm section would sound best with which song. It was a different process to just taking an established band into a studio and recording for three or four days, which is how the previous record was made.

AAJ: On Howie 61 you sing on all but two tracks; do you feel more comfortable calling yourself a guitarist/vocalist now?

WK: Honestly, I haven't thought too much about what I'm calling myself. I know that each time I open my mouth it gets easier and I'm learning more about how to combine lyrics and music. On Howie 61, afterwards, I reflected that I'd actually learned a lot about how I want to use my voice in the future. It was intimidating, honestly, to do that. When I started playing guitar way back when I was playing in bands and singing so it's not like I'd never sung before. But when I got interested in jazz I just dedicated myself to playing the guitar, and that took all my time and attention. I didn't even think about singing for many years.

It's only now that I have ideas about having voice in music that I'm doing this. Somebody has to sing the stuff and until I can find somebody who can I'm going to keep trying. I enjoy it and hopefully I'll get better at it. I'm really not practicing like I do with the guitar and the writing. So until I do, if I ever do, I'll probably just continue to call myself a guitarist and leave it at that [laughs]. I'm happy to do it for now and it's an interesting limitation to work with because there's a lot I can't do with my voice and I have to take that into consideration when I'm writing. I like working within this limitation or that limitation. It helps me.

AAJ: You must have been asked a thousand times over the years about your guitar influences, but which vocalists or lyricists impress you most?

WK: I have to say that I'm typically not touched by lyrics. I don't often notice them. I can sing along with the melody of a song but I don't often think about the words. So, I can't really say that I've been influenced by anybody in the writing I'm doing now. It's been more of a process of trying to figure out what I would want to sing about. When you decide you're going to sing, the next question is what are you going to sing? I had this sense that lyrics are either about love, sex or money essentially, and I wasn't really comfortable singing about any of those things in the sense that I didn't feel I had anything to say particularly, or something that I'd want to share.

On the last record "It's No Fun Not to Like Pop" was primarily an instrumental song that had a tiny bit of vocal content, with a pretty vague message. The song "I Was Like..." refers to the fact that in New York people use the word "like" constantly. You can get irritated listening to it after a while, so that was an easy rant to write about. But you can't just write about rants, so what does that leave? I think answering these kinds of questions is what took me so long to add this element. I've been trying to write words to songs since 1995, so it took 13 years just to get to that point where I felt comfortable enough with what I was coming up with to actually put it in a song.

AAJ: The Ice-Cube song "Check Yo Self" is a cracking track, but is effectively an instrumental song; did you ever toy with the idea of singing the rap lyrics yourself?

WK: I'm not really drawn to style and idiom so much. Although that could change because one of my great inspirations is The Beatles' White Album (Apple, 1968), which is a collection of one style after another and they really do delve pretty deeply into it track by track in a very satisfying way. There's something about being able to use a style but still have your personal stamp on it. A problem I have with a lot of stylistic stuff is that it sounds derived when the style takes over the content and the person doing it becomes inconsequential. To me, at that point it stops being personally expressive. It simply becomes an expression of your adoration for a style and for me that's just not enough.

That said, I've actually started thinking about the next record and it's possible that I could try to tackle some styles more explicitly and more faithfully, just to see if I could still manage to put my stamp on it. That could be pretty interesting.

AAJ: The track "I'm Afraid That I'm Dead" stands apart both lyrically and musically from the other tracks. It's an arresting piece. How did electronic musician Yasushi Miura get involved?

WK: It was in a notebook of words and ideas that I'd kept for years. I was going through those notebooks and ran across that and it seemed particularly sincere in a way and I thought that it might actually translate. It's safe to say that it came from a pretty introspective moment at that time in my life, whenever that was. I ended up writing it on piano, and I'm not really sure why. It just didn't seem like a guitar song at the time.

Yasushi Miura was someone whose stuff I'd heard on the radio. I'd never heard of him before, but I noticed that several times when I heard a track that appealed to me, when I bothered to find out who it was it was him; different kinds of tracks, different music. I realized there is something in this guy's music that I connect with. I found his e-mail and e-mailed him. He actually knew who I was and he was nice enough to send me a bunch of his stuff. I really liked it, and as I was writing this song I thought it would be great if I could get him to do something. I emailed him the track, he did the track and it was perfect.

It does stand out. It's the only track on the record I'm not playing guitar on. It's the only track I've ever recorded where I'm not playing guitar. That alone is kind of odd.

AAJ: Tell us a little about bassist Tal Wilkenfeld. She's somebody who's achieved a lot in a relatively short space of time; what's it like playing with her?

WK: She's outstanding because she has this tremendous energy and drive, in addition to being really talented musically. She has a lot of direction and is fearless, and that's an outstanding quality. She made her first record that I played on [Transformation (Self Produced, 2007)] and it turns out her writing is on a high level. It was quite sophisticated. I had these two tracks I wanted to do with [drummer] Vinnie Colaiuta and it was obvious to me that she was the right choice for the pace on those tracks. They've played a lot together. It worked great. I was in L.A. for just one day and we did those two tracks. I was very, very happy with the way they turned out.
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