A Chat with Wayne Krantz
By Mike Jacobs
In musician circles, Wayne Krantz is something of an icon. Having come on the scene in the latter 80’s, he was already making a splash in guitar circles when he retreated from outside influence to build a style that was all his own. Emerging with a sound and technique that was as formidable as it was unique, he soon shook loose from the control of major record labels and went totally independent – in the process being one of the first musicians to put something called “the internet” to use. Restlessly creative, his output has ranged from fully composed albums to fully improvised albums with various stops in between. He had just completed a reworking of his book “An Improviser’s O. S.” when we sat down for a chat…
ABLX: Rumor has it that you have a new record in the works…
WK: I do. I started writing last Summer and finished it about four or five months ago, maybe. It’s a layered thing and I’m just kind of putting it together piece by piece. It’s a little more expansive than my usual trio format – a little more complex in terms of logistics and instrumentation. I’m hoping to have it done by the Fall . That’s the goal. I just finished writing this revision on my book [An Improviser’s O.S.] – that’s just going to press now. So now that that’s done I can focus full time on moving forward with the record.
ABLX: So this is not a trio record?
WK: No, it’s bigger. There’s no singing and it’s a little less pop oriented than Howie 61. It’s sort of jazzier in a way – not swing but…. it’s a little hard to describe. It’s very composed. In terms of how I’m thinking about it, there’s almost no improvising on it – yet, anyway. It’s quite different from what I’m doing right now with the live stuff.
ABLX: Almost harkening back to say, your Long To Be Loose period?
WK: Yeah, in a way, except it’s not orchestrated for trio. But yeah, it’s THAT composed, I would say. I haven’t done that in a long time because the trajectory of the music has been going deeper and deeper into the improvisational side. The thing is, the improvising is always evolving. It’s not like it would be entirely inappropriate to make another record of the improvisational stuff in terms of how it might sound different at this point. I do think that’s important – that new records sound different than the ones that came before. But I’ve documented the improvisational stuff on record a lot and I kind of felt the need to get back to some writing, so that’s the thrust of this one.
ABLX: You say the new record is “very composed.” Is it meant to stay that way when you reach the studio? In other words, is the idea to document a pretty strict representation of what’s in your head or let it morph a bit when it gets into live players’ hands?
WK: Right now, it’s [going to be] entirely composed – probably with a few solos here and there but I’m not really sure about that. What I’m going to do is basically record it as I wrote it and then listen to it. If at that point it seems too static to me…. I mean I’m not writing classical music here, it has to live and breathe. And typically I don’t write for drums, they provide for a lot of living and breathing on this stuff just because what they play is largely improvisational. But yeah, then I’m just going to make sure that the desired balance between compositional and improvisational stuff is struck in the right way.
ABLX: Do you have any musicians in mind for this project?
WK: I do but I don’t like to talk about that before it’s recorded. It’s a bunch of good people. I’m not worried about them at all. (laughs)
ABLX: Your last three studio albums all contain varying degrees of structure but even in the more improvisational oriented offerings – such as Good Piranha Bad Piranha – there seems to be a greater refinement of expression present than in earlier efforts. What’s your take on that observation?
WK: That’s interesting that you say that. That last one [Good Piranha Bad Piranha] was vastly more jammy than the other two records. Krantz Carlock LeFebvre was a pretty fair amount of writing with space left for improvising. Like I said, we’re always trying to balance those two things in a desirable way from record to record. And that balance shifts from record to record. KCL was a lot more composed than the live records I was making at the 55 Bar – which were basically just live documents of improvising. With KCL, I wrote a lot and we balanced it with improvising because that’s what that band does, largely. But Howie 61, that’s very, very composed. It’s basically songs that may have a solo or two here and there but there’s almost no jamming on it.
Good Piranha Bad Piranha was really what we do live. That was basically a live session recorded in the studio, but we could have been in a club doing that. And in fact I didn’t write at all for it. It was four cover jams with two different groups doing their own things with it. And of course that was edited because the record has to be 40 minutes long, not 120. Plus – and maybe this is what you were noticing – the way that we improvise is becoming more and more compositional over time.
I like organizing the improvising so it resembles composition in how it’s shaped and put together and how it evolves – the arc of it, the form of it. I really look for that as opposed to just taking a guitar solo over a groove, then a bass solo over a groove, then a drum solo over a groove. It’s really more of an effort to spontaneously generate stuff that has improvisational fire in it but also kind of stands as a credible piece. Something where we’re not just asking the audience to sit back and admire what good soloists we are. That’s kind of a different intent than the normal case of just going in and blowing on a riff.
So if that record seems more succinct, I take that as a really nice compliment because about 94 percent of that record was improvised. Maybe we’re making some headway… (laughs)
Remember, I’m trying to prevent people from being bored. That’s what’s going on here… seriously …(laughs)
ABLX: Even yourself, right?
WK: Well… me too, yeah, but it’s fun to play music so there’s less of a chance that I’m going to be bored. You’re asking an audience to sit there and listen to either a record or a live show of people improvising. To get them to sit for that and like it…. or listen to the record again, or come see the gig again… The main thing you’re fighting at that point is the incredibly high potential for it to be boring. You know, it’s just a bunch of guys playing their instruments. By itself, that’s really not that interesting – you have to make something of that. It’s no accident that when you go see Radiohead or something there’s a 90-foot screen behind them with state of the art video. Or you see Madonna and there’s fifty dancers on stage. Even if you see somebody artistic like Nine Inch Nails there’s state of the art lighting – there’s a show attached to this great music they’re playing. That’s part of what’s holding the audience’s attention and part of the reason they’re willing to pay 150 bucks to stand up with four or five thousand other people in an uncomfortable room – because there’s a show going on, a spectacle.
What we do is on such a modest scale compared to that, all of the interest has to come from the music itself. The show is the music and the music is the show. I always feel a big responsibility to try and figure out how to structure it in a way so that it holds up – so it’s not just three guys jamming wildly and revelling in the fact that we can play our instruments. To me, that gets boring real fast. That’s one of the reasons why I like thinking more compositionally with it because we want to improvise.
That’s the energy of this thing, that’s where living in the present with the music really is. So we want to do that but we have to figure out how to somehow give it the weight that composition has. So that becomes like a tactical exercise – how do we make it sound credible – even when you’re asking them to show up and pay for something that’s basically unprepared on some level.
ABLX: Hearing you say that, I’m thinking about the various live albums you recorded at the 55 Bar – specifically Greenwich Mean. Here was an album where you sifted through I don’t know how many hundreds of hours of live improv…
WK: Just one hundred… (laughs)
ABLX: Just one hundred, right. (laughs) But on that one, with the listening, cutting and pasting sections of improvs together and assembling that into a new whole, do you think that process may have spawned – in a reverse way – what is now your impulse for “compositional improvisation?”
WK: Maybe… Yeah, you know it probably did because in fact on that record in particular, whatever you hear that sounds compositional – and there’s a little bit on every track of that record, even though there are so many tracks – was all constructed. None of the stuff we were actually playing is on that record “compositionally.” It’s all stuff constructed from the improvising. Even back then I recognized that there had to be some kind of balance between compositional content and improvisational content for it to work.
That really became clear to me at the beginning of the Carlock / LeFebvre band, which was much more improvisational than the Danziger / Goines band before it. Two Drink Minimum and Long To Be Loose – there was a lot of writing with that first trio. When I started that second band, we started without ANY composition at all. We had this weekly gig and we would just go up without any written stuff and just jam. I quickly realized, even though with certain people you can make that work, in general I couldn’t count on it every week. I can’t ask the audience – and us for that matter – to really come up with the goods consistently every week without any kind of compositional content. So there needed to be at least some writing. Then I kind of re-found the balance with that trio and that ethos for me was pretty much defined by that particular group.
That said, Howie 61 was a very composed record and this new one is almost entirely composed so this is a shifting dynamic. It’s like whatever feels right for right now. I’m also reacting against what I’ve done before because I don’t want to keep making the same record. Some people are good at doing that and have an audience that expects that but it just never felt right to me.
ABLX: One thing I wanted to ask about was your compositional process. There are many guitarists who compose with or for the guitar. Then there are those who compose in their heads and it just finds its way out through the guitar. Your style is so distinctive that it’s a little difficult to tell so, which is it for you?
WK: In my case, until this record that I’m making now, my writing has been ENTIRELY a function of my guitar playing. I wrote for guitar, period. I looked for stuff that sounds good on guitar and from that I orchestrated it, usually for trio. Prior to this new record, I kind of hit a wall with that and felt that I had done it that way enough. This thing I’m working on now is entirely written, every single note, away from the guitar. I’ve never done that before and in fact I wasn’t even sure I could do it.
ABLX: Did you have to learn your own guitar parts?
WK: I didn’t write too much for guitar because I just presumed I’d be able to deal with that in the studio later. But yeah, I have a little bit of guitar written and I’m gonna have to learn how to play it because it didn’t come from guitar. For me that was an interesting difference with this [new] thing. It would be interesting to have a good listener’s take on this because it’s NOT strictly guitar-based, for once.
ABLX: Well, knowing your bio, you did take piano when you were younger so your window onto understanding music isn’t one hundred percent coming from guitar, right?
WK: Well, the piano lessons I took as a child don’t really consciously inform what I’m doing now. In fact, if it were not for the beauty of Sibelius software I don’t know if I could have written a record’s worth of stuff away from the guitar in any kind of way that would satisfy me. I don’t know if I’m capable of that. I mean people wrote like that 200 years ago and I suppose some people can still write like that. But I needed the orchestrational aspect of being able to hear, “Oh, that’s what that bass part is going to sound like, that’s what that piano part sounds like…”
ABLX: So hypothetically, if someone commissioned you to write a piece for orchestra, how do you think you would fare?
WK: I think I could make something that I would be happy with now – because of the experience I just had writing for this record. I wrote for a bigger ensemble without touching the guitar and I’m satisfied with the result, in terms of the writing. Not that my phone is ringing off the hook with people wanting orchestral pieces but if that phone ever DOES ring, that’s kind of nice news for me.
ABLX: You’ve talked before that at an early point in your career, you decided to sort of sequester yourself from other musical influences to find and develop your own personal style. From there mainly worked in your own trios for many years so you have been very submerged in “your own thing” for the bulk of your career. On those occasions where you’ve stepped out of that to work with others, – ie, Steely Dan, Chris Potter, Tal Wilkenfeld, The Ringers – do you find this has affected your ability to “play well with others “ so to speak?
WK: It’s difficult for me to assess because I have nothing to compare it to but on some level I think it probably makes it harder. No matter who it is, no matter how open minded someone is that comes to me and says, “Hey, you want to play guitar on my thing?”, they’re going to have some idea of what a guitar is supposed to do. Even if they are going to give me as much freedom as I want, they’re still going to have ideas about that. So that’s why maybe a player who is more of a stylist has less of a disconnect with that because whatever it is that the leader is hearing at that point is playable. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Oh ok, you want that kind of a thing? Cool I got that.”
Whereas with my thing, it’s so defined now as a personal thing, invariably there’s going to be some element of it that wasn’t quite was expected. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it isn’t. I think it has kind of taken care of itself by this time because really the only people that would ask me to play on their record are people that know what I do and want that sound. Nobody’s gonna call me to do an imitation of Steve Lukather – there’s no point in it.
ABLX: But is it culture shock for you to step out of your own thing and into say, The Ringers where you’re playing with Michael Landau and Jimmy Herring? There you’re not only playing different material but you also don’t often play with other guitarists.
WK: Well sure, that was a different thing. Talking about that situation specifically, the thing that really made it the most fun was that they’re such great people – and such great guitar players. It kind of can’t help being fun at that point. At the same time though, it ain’t my thing and never will be. You can kind of flirt with other things and it’s interesting to see what works and what doesn’t but ultimately it’s hard to beat your own thing once you’ve tasted it.
But it’s absolutely not a bad thing, I’m happy to have those opportunities and I hope they continue to come in occasionally.
ABLX: It is interesting to hear you in other settings though because sometimes these situations draw something out that may not have otherwise emerged. Case and point, there’s a few audio clips floating around the internet of you playing with Steely Dan – a very interesting context to hear you in. How did you feel about that gig?
WK: It was fun. I had a good time. I mean they hired me to improvise. They hired me because for that season they didn’t want to have somebody playing the stuff on the records. They needed somebody who could come up with something other than what was expected in that situation and so that was kind of a license to do my thing. You know, I used to listen to them in high school and I had a lot of respect for them, so I tried to do the music justice. It was a fun job.
ABLX: One outside project that was striking in that it sounded very natural for you was Tal Wilkenfeld’s Transformation. You, and the others involved, sounded very integrated – as if those tunes were written for you.
WK: Honestly, I don’t remember it very well but that’s good. If it strikes you as sounding organic then that’s cool. Tal really had listened to my thing and she knew that we had some fundamental things in common. But any of these situations are mostly fun. Now most of the time people email me stuff to play on. That’s fun too because I can really do whatever I think is right and email it off to them. It’s perfect in a way, you know. I don’t have to deal with any raised eyebrows from the engineer. (laughs) I can just do my thing and let it fly.
ABLX: You still gig pretty regularly at the 55 Bar with a range of players. What do you look for in a musician to do that trio gig with you?
WK: They have to have good time, obviously…to be creative. They have to have some kind of feel for funk and rock grooves because that’s the foundation of the music. They have to be strong rhythmically because the band rigidly adheres to four, eight and sixteen bar forms, that’s always the foundation of the improvising, so somebody has to be able to hear that in the middle of the rhythmic maelstrom that inevitably occurs. You know, it has to be creative and feel good and be funky.
And [I look for] somebody who listens – because that’s like the ‘jazz’ part of what we do, the interaction. You know, what Miles did in the 60’s with Wayne and Ron and Herbie and Tony, where they would play the same ten standards every night but always play them differently. They would react to each other differently and create all these different contours and terrains. All of them would improvise and one night was never like any other. That music heavily influenced what we do, but we don’t do it over swing grooves and standards. We do it over funk and rock. A straightforward groove drummer might not work so well for my thing, even though groove is a really important part of it, because if it’s somebody that doesn’t know how to creatively interact in the moment, then it gets compromised and we can’t really do our thing.
ABLX: You’re known for doing a lot of on-the-fly tempo changes in you live set. Where did that come from?
WK: That came from making Greenwich Mean. When I was assembling that record I would just pull two tempos next to each other. There’s no spaces between any of the tracks and it’s pretty much a stream of consciousness thing. So things would get edited together – these tempos that had absolutely nothing to do with each other and also keys that had nothing to do with each other. The only criterion I had as to whether to do it or not was if it sounded cool.
So after that record was done, that was one of the things I wanted to do live. But how can we do that – like a needle-drop randomly on an LP, from song to song? So that was one of the ways we found to do that – radically change the tempo marking, without it relating mathematically in any way to what came before it, so it literally would sound like dropping the needle someplace else.
ABLX: How do you do that logistically?
WK: Hey man, you know… that’s the magic. (laughs)
ABLX: Trade secrets, ok… (laughs)
WK: No no, it’s really driven by the drummer. I cue when it happens, whether we go faster or slower and how much. Then it’s up to them, at the beginning of the next phrase, to shift non-mathematically to another tempo, and play it strongly enough so that the bass and guitar can grab onto it immediately. So it’s just a feel thing. We sorta rehearsed it initially when that band started doing it. At this point I’ve been doing it for twenty years and now a lot of people can do that so it’s not so big a deal anymore. I know that James Brown and Prince also did radically different tempo shifts that they cued. I don’t know how they did it but for me it just came from trying to replicate this effect that happened almost incidentally on that record.
ABLX: It’s deceiving because it sounds like such a unified thing, one just assumes the change is a mathematical subdivision of the tempo in some way…
WK: But that’s the whole goal, man – to get it so it sounds that tight, without being that. And again, that just comes under the heading of “How do we keep them, and ourselves, from getting bored?” That’s just one of the moves we’ve come up with as a band to create a drastic change in terrain.
ABLX: Early on and for long stretches of your career you’ve been very “DIY,” in terms of putting music out. In that way you’ve almost been prophetic for how many must now look at navigating the current landscape as musicians. You’ve also been with different labels for chunks of time. Could you talk about the downsides and upsides you’ve experienced with each situation?
WK: I was completely independent of labels, managers and distributors for 10 years. That’s when I first studied HTML and learned how to build a website. This was back in the old days when having a website was like “Wow, you have a website? How do you do that?” (laughs). But that’s when I got into this idea of cutting out the middleman, as it were. Trying to make stuff as good as I could, sell it directly to whatever little audience I had at the time and see if I could survive. I kind of struggled to do that but I managed to do that for a pretty long time. And you know, the audience grew organically, bit by bit. I mean not hand over fist or anything but the audience slowly got a bit bigger, just by word of mouth and it was a cool thing. I was selling downloads on the website and doing stuff like that.
And really the only reason I entertained the idea of working with a label again – and that happened to be Abstract Logix – was that I was so far out of the business at that point that I had no way of touring. Touring involves promoters. I could be selling ten thousand records a year – and in jazz, that might be one of the best sellers of the year – but unless it was on the radar of the music business, a promoter would have no way of knowing whether I’d done that or who bought them. So I found that I couldn’t tour effectively, and I wanted to get the stuff out on the road. So the label provided an opportunity to interface a little bit with the music business – I mean, we’re still talking about an independent label here.
But immediately upon making the first record – I guess it was Krantz Carlock LeFebvre – I was on the road. We were able to do some gigs. I went to Asia for the first time. It did what I wanted it to do and got me out a little bit more, which was cool.
And in the case of that label [Abstract Logix], there were zero controls [put] on what I’m doing. I guess I’ve made three records with them and they are all really different. They all speak to different parts of what my thing is and there was nobody instructing me about what to do and where to go creatively with those. That was nice because I know some people have to deal with that on more mainstream labels. Plus the economic structure of it worked – it wasn’t as abusive as most record company contracts are.
So there was now somebody between me and the audience – and I’m not nuts about the idea of that conceptually – but it’s really hard to interface with the music business without being in it, you know, so… (laughs) If you want to be active at all, there have to be some kind of inroads and alliances made.
ABLX: I see that you’re planning on touring soon.
WK: Yeah, it looks like KCL is gonna raise its head up out of the mud and do some gigs, which should be fun. We just did one the other day after not playing for years and we all had a good time. I think we’re going to try to do something the first part of next year (2020).
ABLX: You’ve all had a lot of experiences since you played together regularly – Carlock with Steely Dan and others, LeFebvre with Tedeschi Trucks and Bowie…
WK: Hopefully all of those experiences won’t compromise their abilities too much…
ABLX: (laughs) Do you feel that experience in them when you play together now?
WK: Well, none of us play like we did then, it’s interesting. I mean I play WAY differently now so… but that’s kind of the fun part. Even though there are some differences – especially when we’re improvising – it’s still fun, it still works. So that was cool and really why we decided to try and do some more stuff.
ABLX: You said earlier that you recently finished a second edition of your book, “An Improviser’s O.S.” How is this edition different from the first?
WK: It’s a little more involved on the application side. More involved with [things like] “How can I use this to become a stronger improviser?” and “How do I make myself sound better?” – musical things. The core math of the thing is the same but I rewrote it so hopefully it’s a little clearer. I had the advantage of fifteen years of people going, “Huh? What does that mean?” So I cleared up some common misunderstandings, hopefully, and added to the content of it.
ABLX: Would you call it a guitar oriented book?
WK: It’s written as a guitar book primarily, I guess, but even more than the first one, it’s really just an improvising book, not strictly limited to guitar. A lot of the exercises are guitar-centric, but not without potential for application to other things. It would be great if some drummers bought it, some saxophone players and piano players. Some did with the first book and that was cool. I wanted to write something that wasn’t just a guitar book but that worked as a guitar book and I think I did. I hope I did.
ABLX: So the book is a reflection of your approach to improvising and music. Has that approach has changed much over the years or even since the last book?
WK: Yeah, that’s the thing about improvising – built into the word is change. There’s no way it could NOT change. The only way for it not to change would be not to improvise. The book is all about using theory as a way to practice being a better improviser. The theory becomes a servant for the main order of business – which isn’t the theory at all. The theory is just the “math” of it. The main order of business is actually playing music, actually being creative and performing in a creative way.
And that IS change. I can’t even keep up with the changes that are happening. They happen all the time. Once you commit to being a creative player, then every day there’s just new things. There’s always these new directions happening and new solutions to challenges. I’ve committed myself to that kind of trajectory as a player. To be honest, just trying to keep up with the ideas is just really exciting. I mean, I’ve never liked playing guitar more than I do today… ever, and it just never seems to stop. It keeps opening up.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with working or being paid or being known. I’m just talking about my relationship to the guitar and playing music. One of the things I like most about improvising is that it allows – and really ASKS – for change, evolution, movement. I like those things because, like I said man, it’s all about trying not to bore the people. No matter how great it is, the more you do the same thing, the more boring it gets – for us and for them. So improvising is like the answer to all that, I think. You just have to figure out a way to do it so that it’s good enough, so it satisfies people. That’s where the practicing of improvisation comes in and that’s what the book talks about – how to practice that. It’s a different discipline than lick playing. It asks for a different focus.
ABLX: As you say that, it’s a bit ironic that you’re working on your most composed album to date…
WK: Yeah, but there’s room for that. We are not records. We’re people playing music in the world and occasionally we make records. The wider our imagination is, the wider the range of stuff that can be made and called a record. And like I said, every time it comes time to make a record I think, “Well, what needs to be done now? What’s right, now? Without doing what I just did, what’s in front of me?” That’s what was in front of me this time so that’s what I’m doing.
ABLX: What do you hear or see today that inspires you – musically or otherwise?
WK: I think I’m a little weird in that way compared to my brother and sister musicians in that I don’t look to music so much for inspiration. I mean, I guess I do but if I do that, I tend not to look at what is happening around me but at classic things that have happened. I listen to dead people a lot. I don’t go scouring the clubs for the latest sounds. I’m really not up on it and I don’t use the energy of that in what I do. There are classic things that I listen to through the years – as opposed to when I was just getting started on guitar when you just listen to everything you can and imitate it. That’s how you get on your feet. As you mentioned earlier, at some point I got tired of being a sponge for everything I loved, and sounding like everything I loved. So I kind of intentionally turned away from music as a source for inspiration for a long, long time. Then when I felt like I had defined myself well enough – to myself and hopefully to anybody listening – I could start listening to music again without just being a sponge that gives themselves up over every new sound that comes their way.
So at that point I did start listening to music a little more but still not so much. As far as where the inspiration comes from, in my case, I think it’s a little like asking where do the ideas come from. I don’t really know the answer to that exactly. I know I can listen to, say, Django Reinhardt radio recordings from Rome and be inspired by the melody that he makes, for example. So I’ll listen to that and say, “Wow, that’s what’s possible for an improviser, melodically.” Once you realize that’s possible, that means you can do it, too.
So that’s the inspiration, not going out and trying to sound like Django, like I would do when I first started to listen to music. Now the things that inspire me are the things underneath the playing, not the idiosyncrasies of the player. My big thing in recent years is trying to connect to the music more deeply when I play. That’s one of my main goals.
There’s a Hendrix Woostock video where you see him able to really connect in a situation that presented so many distractions from connection. I find THAT really inspiring. I can be inspired by THAT… without trying to cop the solo on Foxy Lady. (laughs)
You go to those places where you see the soul bubbling to the surface, whatever it is. Then you get the message, “That’s possible.”
Mike Jacobs is a contributor to All About Jazz