Wayne Krantz’s singular and frequently visionary playing has made him one of New York City’s most highly respected and sought-after guitarists, resulting in performing and recording gigs with a host of luminaries such as Steely Dan, Victor Bailey, Michael Brecker, Carla Bley, Billy Cobham, and Chris Potter. Beyond those celebrated sideman roles, Krantz has led his own trios through intriguing and ever-shifting musical landscapes for nearly two decades, specializing in structured improvisations that showcase his formidable stylistic scope and uncanny real-time compositional prowess. (Intrigued listeners with the aspiration and determination to plumb Krantz’s conceptual depths for themselves may attempt ingress via his instructional masterwork, An Improviser’s OS, published in 2005.)
On Krantz’s latest release, Howie 61 [Abstract Logix], the perpetually restless guitarist’s polyglot musical trip mutates into an unprecedented take on the “singersongwriter” format. Except for an extended improvisation on Ice Cube’s “Check Yo Self,” the songs are relatively short, have easily discernable sections, and feature Krantz’s lyrics and vocals. The album also departs from the past by featuring combinations of more than a dozen stellar players rather than the familiar trio lineup.
Was there a concept behind Howie 61 when you started out, and how did the circumstances surrounding the making of the record differ from those surrounding your previous albums?
The process began on Krantz Carlock Lefebvre , which contained a few actual “songs” in terms of shorter length, lyrics, and singing. Howie 61 continued my exploration of how I might take all of the stuff I’ve learned about guitar playing and improvising, my thoughts about what kind of words I want to be responsible for, and what was possible given the limitations of my voice—and pack all that stuff into a short song.
Another huge shift was that going back to 1993, all of my records have featured the bands that I was working with at the time, and I wanted to get away from that because I felt I had already done it. So I invited a lot of musicians that I had played with previously, or had wanted to play with, and combined them in different ways to expand into a broader thing with more colors coming in from other places. Some tracks were recorded in L.A., some in London, and some in New York. Everyone gave their all and were really into it, which was very gratifying because there were no limousines or complimentary sushi dinners—it was pretty rough and rugged.
What about the title track? Is there a direct connection to Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”?
There actually is. It’s an example of starting with a title—in this case a play on words that I thought was funny. Instead of saying “Highway 61,” which has the historical weight of both the Americana and Dylan things, switching it to “Howie 61” made it ridiculous. The wordiness of the song is also kind of a reference to Dylan, and the song’s form—which is basically a weird, expanded blues—is based on the structure of a Dylan tune. As far as the album title, I was going to call it something else, but Howie 61 was kind of funny and easy to remember, so I decided to use it. And I had no idea that that song was going to open the album when I wrote it, but I like that it provides a soft opening and just kind of eases the listener in.
Is there a single guitar part on the album that you were particularly pleased with?
I like the guitar solo on “How the West Was Left” a lot because it was an overdub and I wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach it sonically. I experimented with some different things and ultimately I discovered that using the back pickup with pretty high gain on the amp but the volume turned down and playing with my fingers rather than a pick gave me the sound I needed. I was happy with that, though by nature I’m not motivated to sit around trying to figure out what the best sound for something is.
You have always said that you aren’t a “gear guy,” and that you don’t spend a lot of time messing with things—but you have good gear and always get good sounds. Do you just choose a few things and focus on getting them to sound right?
That makes me wonder if I’ve just been fooling myself all these years [laughs]. But the second part of what you said also makes sense. The beginning of my sound was in 1993, when I got rid of a bunch of amps and just plugged a Strat directly into a Fender Deluxe turned all the way up. That sounded terrible for a year or so, but the good thing is that I had to figure out how to make such a thin tone sound good just by using my hands rather than relying on an amp.
That said, fast-forwarding to the present, I’m kind of excited because Matt Brewster at 30th Street Guitars—who does all my guitar work, advises me on gear, and built my pedalboard—showed me this Tyler amp that I really like. I believe its called a JT46, and its based on an old Marshall. When I heard it I said, “That is a sound I can use,” so I bought one, along with a couple of Tyler cabinets, and I also tweaked my pedalboard. So maybe I am getting into gear.
Did you use that rig on the new album?
Yes, on part of it. I also used my Marshall 2553 Jubilee head, which I still love. In fact, just this last week I started using the two amps together. The Tyler cabs are super lightweight and loaded with both 12” and 10" speakers. I use them with the Tyler and Marshall heads, with a little more breakup on the Marshall, and delay and reverb on one side. It’s essentially an exaggerated clean sound, and then I add more distortion with a pedal when needed. The reason I’ve just used one amp for so many years is that the sound is more focused when it comes from one place. That’s particularly important rhythmically, as the more spacious the sound, the less rhythmic it is. Rhythm is like the crack of the snare when you’re a foot away from the drum. On the other hand, I think it is nice for the audience to experience some lushness and beauty. I don’t want everything to be harsh and difficult just because that’s what gets me off.
What’s new with your pedalboard?
I’m still using the Boss DD-3 delay and OC-2 octave pedals, and the Moogerfooger MF-102 Ring Modulator, but I added a Strymon El Capistan delay and a Wampler Pinnacle distortion. I also have a Hiwatt wah and a Dr. Scientist Reverberator pedal, and very recently I got an Electro-Harmonix Freeze, which sounds sort of low-fi and funny but is really useful.
Are you still playing the James Tyler Studio Elite?
Yes, with a Duncan Full Shred in the bridge slot and two Suhr single-coils. James is also working on another guitar for me that may become a signature model. The neck is modeled on the neck on my ’73 Fender Stratocaster, which is not a particularly good guitar, but I love the way the neck feels, probably just because I’ve played it for so long. I got that guitar in 1980, and learned to play on it.
Did you use any other guitars on the album?
Yes, a really cool ’67 Fender Tele with a great neck that I got some years ago and love very much, and a Godin dreadnought acoustic.
Transitioning away from gear, briefly describe what An Improviser’s OS is all about.
It contains the method I stumbled across for practicing the chords and scales that are part of chromatic tonality that we are subject to here in the West. But the method is creative and musical, as opposed to recreative and pattern oriented, and the material is presented within the context of improvising.
Talk about your approach to groove.
I’m coming from the James Brown, Sly Stone, Prince camp—and I list those guys in order of my discovery of them. As far as I understand it, their groove has a lot to do with rhythmic counterpoint. Ellington talked about it, too, and when I analyzed his music I saw that the use of rhythmic counterpoint gave a certain kind of bounce to the groove. I think of it as a vertical lift that the groove has, where the 2 and the 4 just pop up off the snare. The energy is going up, whereas in a lot of rock music the energy is going down, as in to the floor. That vertical energy fits perfectly with what I do, because while the ball is in the air, before it hits the floor and bounces again, all kinds of things can happen—and that’s where I live. That’s where all my stuff is happening.
Your improvisational style involves harmony as much as it does melody. To what extent are you consciously thinking about harmonic relationships, and to what extent are you just going with the flow?
It’s a good question. Surprisingly, it’s kind of hard to answer because the space that I’m in when I’m playing is something that I haven’t really quantified. That said, I’ve been practicing that approach for so many years that I don’t even think about it as adding harmony. I’m either playing one note at a time, or more than one note at a time, but it’s all coming from exactly the same place. The only difference is the kind of impact it has. There’s a certain effect when you do one of those two things and then suddenly people perceive it as a chord or a line or something. But as far as how it feels, it’s not really a distinction that I make.
You are able to find space for your parts even when navigating the densest musical environments. How do you do that?
That’s counterpoint. And although it may seem like there is no space in the music, almost inevitably there will be—and that’s my place. I’ve likened it to looking at an image and then seeing a negative of the image to see what isn’t there. It is also a little like looking at a page of text and seeing the spaces between the words. Those kinds of images sort of describe what I’m talking about. Honestly, though, it is a classic skill that many different types of musicians have. For example, all of the great R&B session players have that ability. In order for them to create a part that matters, they listen to where the cracks are in the music, center their parts those cracks, and then maybe ornament them beyond that. They may bleed over into space that is already occupied, too, but the fundamental parts are in the places where nothing else is happening.
And the same is true in terms of sound. When I first got to New York many years ago, I attended a David Sanborn rehearsal and Hiram Bullock was the guitarist. At the time I was playing through two amps, stereo chorus, stereo delay, and all this stuff that gave me a big, lush sound. When Hiram started playing he had a really thin and not great sound, and I thought to myself, “Why would he opt for a sound like that?” Then the band started playing, and that place that he occupied sonically was completely his own. The lushness of the overall sound came from the entire band. His experience told him that that’s where he had to be to make a difference, and it sounded incredible in that context, whereas a big, luscious guitar sound would have been inaudible. That was the voice of experience talking. And it was a beautiful thing.