Syncopation. From slave-era “banjo and bones” accompaniment to ragtime through postbop and bossa nova, it’s always been the beating heart of the jazz idiom. And it’s a fundamental principle that helps one begin to decode the singular musical language of cliché-defying guitar antihero Wayne Krantz. His work with Steely Dan, Michael Brecker, Leni Stern, Michael Formanek, Carla Bley, and others gives us glimpses into an idiosyncratic musical mind that finds its full expression on solo albums like 1993’s Long to Be Loose, 1995’s live set 2 Drink Minimum, the thunderous Krantz Carlock Lefebvre from 2009, and 2014’s prismatic jazz-rock EP Good Piranha/Bad Piranha.
On his latest album as a leader and composer, Write Out Your Head—which reflects the spirit of downtown jazz avatars like the great Henry Threadgill—Krantz indeed writes out of his head: The music was composed without a guitar in hand, using Sibelius notation software to plant polyrhythmic melodic figures directly onto the virtual page. Then Krantz shared his scores, along with a click track and a single sequenced Fender Rhodes keyboard part, for remote recording by his fine cast of players: saxophonist Chris Potter; bassists Will Lee, Tim Lefebvre, Pino Palladino, and Orlando Le Fleming; percussionist and singer Gabriella Anders; and the mighty Keith Carlock on drums.
The guitar, in fact, was one of the last pieces to be recorded, along with, interestingly, the drums. All of which Krantz would artfully edit, nudge, and strip-silence in Pro Tools to bring the elements together and “make it breathe.” The album is noticeably free of overt reverbs and the kind of pushed-preamp gnarliness so fashionable in all quarters of the recording world. The reason? Syncopation.
“That’s my thing,” Krantz explains. “That’s the biggest message of how this record is built, and it goes for everything I write. I’m not writing a swing groove—my writing and playing is based on my perception of funk and rock grooves. The funk groove is a product of rhythmic counterpoint, which is right out of the James Brown, Sly Stone, and Prince tradition. Nothing happens at the same time. Sure, it sounds like it’s happening at the same time because everyone is playing so tightly, but really it’s discreet parts that fit together like a Swiss watch. Reverb interferes with rhythm. It gets in the way of it; it’s anti-rhythmic, in my opinion. It can too easily mask the precision of articulated rhythms.”
Krantz has made the written scores for Write Out Your Head available at his Bandcamp site, WayneKrantz.Bandcamp.com—where you can also pick up the album itself, as well as his excellent instructional book The Improvisor’s OS—and as he explains, if you analyze the scores, you’ll see that “it’s not a bunch of rhythmic unison playing, but discreet ideas arranged in linear form that bounce off each other. This instrument attacks on the ‘one,’ and that instrument attacks on the ‘ee’ of ‘one.’ The result of all that rhythmic counterpoint is funkiness. That’s what I love the most.”
Fans of Krantz’s guitar moves will find plenty of rich playing in tracks like “Ride,” “Kulturny,” “Hello World,” and the whammy bar-assisted “Xandea,” though solos are at a minimum in favor of interlocked rhythmic figures that suggest Krantz’s Juilliard and jazz pedigree filtering the likes of Leo Nocentelli, Jimmy Page, Tom Verlaine, Ernest Ranglin, and John McLaughlin. His handling of voicings, double-stops, even the way he comps or outlines chord extensions is completely his own, an often inscrutable and, one imagines, uncrackable code that sounds sensibly “out” even when it isn’t.
“It’s not my intent to confuse or obscure,” Krantz says. “Unlike a lot of avant-garde stuff, which is often based on chromatic harmony, my stuff is basically either a major chord, minor chord, or dominant chord. It’s just that the way I put those chords together is slightly unconventional, because I’m not using common shapes. If you take the notes that go into a dominant chord and organize them in a different way—and pretty spontaneously, as I do, at least while improvising—you can get some unfamiliar versions of that common chord, and it can confuse people’s ears.”
It can. When Krantz played with Carlock and Lefebvre at Nashville’s City Winery earlier this year, I tell him, I had the distinct impression that someone had taken all my favorite Led Zeppelin songs and reharmonized them using the Super Locrian mode. “All I can do,” he laughs, “is try to put it in a context—in terms of the groove and energy—that makes it okay, but no, I don’t want the audience to be distanced at all. I want them right there with us. Not that they have to understand it intellectually—that’s not important to me. But we do everything we can to make it okay for there to be unfamiliar sounds in the music. And man, if we can get Robert Plant to be on the next record, I’m 100% behind that!”