Jazz CD: Krantz Carlock Lefebvre

Krantz Carlock Lefebvre (Abstract Logix)

By Casey Dolan

Wayne Krantz, Keith Carlock and Tim Lefebvre have thrown down the gauntlet with their new album, Krantz Carlock Lefebvre, (Abstract Logix, Aug. 18), showering the listener with swaths of tone, color and dynamics. This is a remarkable release that sets the barre for all current guitarists, bassists and drummers.

As the first full album recording for the trio since 2003’s Your Basic Live and Krantz CDKrantz’ first studio album in 16 years, it bears significance. All three musicians have proven themselves as young turks of the post-fusion jazz world since the early ‘90s – Krantz with Steely Dan and his several solo albums, Carlock also with Steely Dan and Sting and Lefebvre with Chris Botti — but the new album takes in more influences than what is normally perceived as jazz: from drums ‘n’ bass to nu metal; from open-stringed folk modalities to hard-edged funk; from jam band excursions to pop.

It is not, however, a three-ring circus of pastiche, but consistent throughout; it sounds like the work of a trio guided by one vision. It may not be the Wayne Krantz Trio, but it is to Krantz we must look for the album’s overall design and concept. They are his tunes and the music fits into an important chapter in his musical development.

Wayne Krantz made a commitment over a decade ago to issue live recordings, chiefly on his website, that made up in the spontaneity of performance what they lacked in audio quality. It was perhaps an impetuous reaction to his first two studio albums – Signals (1991) and Long to be Loose (1993) – the debut heralding a player of uncommon speed, dexterity and imagination with a post-bop background deeply influenced by Pat Metheny. Much of that was jettisoned by album number two (try to find a bop phrase on …Loose) and by the live third, 2 Drink Minimum (1995), it was clear that Krantz was determined to work without a net and let the music simply happen (although most of the tunes were tightly structured).

As time went on, Krantz became more entrenched in an ideology of improvisation. Interviews revealed a man determined to work from clean slates and his guitar manual, An Improviser’s OS, (2005) codifies what possibilities exist from any given sequence of notes, or “formulas.” If it was not for a weekly gig at New York’s 55 Bar and the occasional tour with Steely Dan and Donald Fagen, Wayne Krantz would have disappeared from sight except to a small group of players and music academics.

Sometimes his explorations worked; sometimes they didn’t. He would say that is part of the deal, you take your chances. By 1999’s Greenwich Mean, gorgeous jewel-like prayers or ferocious Hendrixian workouts would be followed by baffling, serpentine, seemingly aimless noodlings or, even worse, the hint of an undeveloped great idea. However, something else took form – this trio involving Keith Carlock and bassist Tim Lefebvre – that and a pronounced harder, louder edge to the sound. In short, Krantz rocked and the band, abetted by Carlock’s rolling thunder and Lefebvre’s uncanny ability to listen to his colleagues and play off them, became an almost-legendary powerhouse in New York’s live music circles. It was the classic definition of a power trio, much like Hendrix’ Experience, Cream or Tony Williams’ original Lifetime.

Rock had always been part of the Krantz palette. Screaming bluesy lines on 2 Drink Minimum would not have been amiss on a Jeff Beck album, but, in the late ‘90s, Krantz started adding effects – octave dividers, nasty overdrives, wah-wah and, most importantly, the ring modulator, causing the guitar to sound like an out-of-control microphonic ringtone…all part of the new musical landscape.

Krantz Carlock Lefebvre is both a summation of what has gone on before and the gateway to yet another bold new sound. There is increased accessibility: more structure than before – some might even call it “pop” structure — with verses, choruses and bridges. Only two tunes exceed six minutes and repeated, hummable phrases abound. Somehow, Wayne Krantz has found a way of putting his improvisation agenda into an almost-pop context.

The album begins with the declaration that “It’s No Fun Not to Like Pop” and swings mightily, but the video for the Prince-like funky tune could be one of Krantz’ few missteps. Every era has heard the implicit criticism that current music stinks (The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” comes to mind as a critical perspective on the commercial packaging of pop and Frank Zappa made it a crucial theme in his career). True as it may be, the video, featuring a dissatisfied listener of new CDs, emphasizes its snobbish and snarky stance. Happily, though, the playing is a counterbalance to the sentiment and a portentous door of entry. Behold the mighty Carlock circus kick drum sound! Marvel at the playful syncopations in the phrasing (Krantz has a knack of beginning and ending phrases on off-beats; part of his bop training). Lefebvre is more felt than heard on this opening track, unfortunately, but that is not the norm for the album. Krantz sings the title several times (his only previous recorded vocal outing, to this writer’s knowledge, is on the album he shared with Leni Stern: 1996’s Separate Cages). No other lyric is required. Also making an early appearance is a descending scale. Simple, diatonic descending scales pop up with enough frequency on the album that they could even be regarded as a recurring motif.

“War-Torn Johnny” challenges the very notion of what is rock or jazz with a churning rhythm pattern evolving into a chorused Andy Summers-like head. Krantz has an opportunity to employ his quiver of sounds, most particularly the ring modulator. Carlock’s drumming has an almost African feel and timbre, another subliminal theme or subtext in the album, invoking talking drums and Moroccan hand drums. The interface between the mechanical (the ring modulator) and the real (Mr. Carlock, himself, surrounded by “skins”) becomes blurred.

The haunting “Rushdie” will recall guitarists Pat Metheny or Richard Thompson, but is wholly Krantz. It is one of the masterworks on the record with extraordinary performances by all. The second section of the tune features yet another descending scale with Lefebvre doubling Krantz over Carlock’s hybrid of swamp and military press rolls. A bridging section with Krantz on acoustic and Lefebvre, both soloing against each other, leads to an overpowering shattering electric section with Carlock unleashed playing 16ths then back to the main theme with a slight coda. The whole track is 3:59, but it’s all in there. All of it.

“Wine is the Thread” has a pleasant double-tracked vocal by Krantz and more shadowing of Krantz by Lefebvre. Lefebvre has his job cut out for him, locking in with Carlock or doubling Krantz’ impossibly syncopated lines. The melody goes into whole-tone territory, taking it out of the tonality and there’s a nasty treble overdrive lead which neatly plays against the A section.

The next track, the languidly magisterial “The Earth from Above,” is an essential distillation of everything important about the record. More echoes of vintage Richard Thompson with those open-stringed chords (or is he playing in a tuning?), sounding like something from the drone-y era of Thompson’s “Pour Down like Silver.” The descending scale is heard once more. Kudos must go to an understated Carlock. It’s not easy playing at a tempo this slow and the counterpoint between Lefebvre and Krantz is uncanny.

But, then in surprising fashion, we are woken from our dream state and thrown into the drums ‘n’ bass world of “Left it on the Playground,” sounding ever so much like a bang-your-head track from Squarepusher or Aphex Twin, with Carlock playing for real what those artists would have programmed. Krantz’ ring modulator work is extreme, sounding like a mad gamelan, with Lefebvre playing post-bop lines underneath. For all the notes, all the wonderful ring modulator space-age acid kitsch, this is really Carlock’s show. He alternates patterns at breakneck speed while never losing the funk, and delivers an inhumanly great performance for the books. If there is any criticism to be made, it might be that the track, the longest on the record at 8:59, goes on a bit and would not have suffered if it had been trimmed by a minute or so.

“Jeff Beck” follows, written for the man himself who elected not to perform it. Perhaps that is not surprising considering that it is difficult to assess what, beyond a few bluesy phrases, actually constitutes the song. It seems thin and lacks an emotional center, but Krantz and Lefebvre both shine with tight, funky playing.

There is no thinness at all with the manic, punk, noisy, adrenalized “I Was Like” which has so much going at once that your neighbors might think, during the solo section, that you are playing some industrial noise record. There’s a kind of hysterical busyness here that exhilarates, much like finding yourself in the middle of a riot. It features a frantic, almost out-of-breath Krantz vocal, not double-tracked, and is intended to be played loud.

“Mosley” (yet another song with a writer’s name) has a dirty, swampy groove that works as a soundtrack to Walter Mosley’s smog noir novels. Krantz gets an amazing overdriven wah-wah sound and when Lefebvre kicks in to the second section, the tune glides along on the bouncy shocks of a Roadmaster.

“Holy Joe” takes us back into manic land with the ring modulator with both Lefebvre and Carlock providing punchy accents. The tune ascends into a punk metal place, counterbalanced by an acoustic deftly placed in the mix.

But peace eventually comes to all: The album ends with “Rugged Individual,” another tune that seems to encompass everything right about the band and this album. Krantz’ Tyler is viscous, gliding through the opening contemplative theme, with a B section resolving into a bridge that has Krantz chording beautifully on the 1 and the 3. After an extended break with very subtle wah-wah, the bridge is repeated at the end, with Carlock playing so extraordinarily underneath (it’s basically a drum solo), that this listener could have heard an entire album of nothing but that section repeated endlessly.

Wayne Krantz continues to evolve. In some ways, he has come full circle back to the tight statements of “Signals,” but informed with even more confidence and the considerably freer playing and sonic expansion of the last ten years. With Krantz Carlock Lefebvre, he is affecting the kind of sea change that will be talked about by guitarists for years to come, much in the same way that John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Inner Mounting Flame” affected an earlier generation of guitarists.

I cannot recommend a CD more highly.

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