This is how we do it
Time stood still for me on Sunday in a perfectly engineered listening space built somewhere in the woods outside of Pittsboro.
The space is called The Miraverse at Manifold Recording Studio. It’s about 15 miles outside of Chapel Hill on a country road off US 64. I was heading that way just after noon on Sunday, taking US 421 south out of Greensboro before picking up the six-fo’ in Siler City. In the back of the car I had my most inexpensive electric guitar, a $400 Ibanez, an SG knockoff with double humbuckers I picked up at a pawn shop in Lynchburg, Virginia one day on an extended break from covering a murder trial of some sort.
I trolled this pawn shop on my lunch break from time to time and had noticed this one Ibanez. I decided to buy it at the time because it had incredible natural sustain. That was back in 2002. I’ve since rebuilt a decent guitar collection after having sold all my gear to return to college in 1999.
So on this day, heading toward a guitar clinic with jazz-rock icon Wayne Krantz, I decided to bring the pawn shop Ibanez because of the bitter cold temperatures. I could have lugged the $90 Yamaha classical, but I feared for the natural wood and I felt the Ibanez would be safe in the gig bag.
Turns out, we didn’t use the guitars at all. We listened, in awe I might add, to Krantz talk for the two hours about what he’s into now, how he got started on harmonizing chord scales into suspended bliss, and the advantages of “slowing down to play the music that is there.”
We were relieved to hear that we needn’t memorize the daunting Ted Greene book Chord Chemistry in order to have a shot at becoming a versatile jazz player.
Krantz is currently on tour with the phenomenal Keith Carlock on drums and the mesmerizing Anthony Jackson on bass. After the two-hour clinic I sat among a group of about 50 jazz heads some 15 feet from Carlock and watched him devastate drum grooves for an hour and 40 minutes non-stop. Jackson laid down deep, chest resonating bass lines, to go with his expressive facial gestures, forming in time with the unit’s tight phrases and extended open playing.
If you’re not a jazz head you may have heard of Krantz from the time in 1996 when Steely Dan hired him to play lead only to send him home after the tour. Some said Becker and Fagan were unhappy that Krantz reinterpreted their songs so for out into space that they couldn’t relate. There is this one clip of Krantz just killing the outro solo to Green Earrings. You should look it up on YouTube, seriously. He funks up the lead melody a bit before moving into his own harmonic scale frenzy, dropping multinote tones like a scientist, with that usual Wayne Krantz smile, eyes closed with his head tilted up at an angle.
Krantz told us during the clinic that it helped him to focus and avoid distraction to play with his eyes closed. I’m not sure if he’s aware of the facial expressions he makes, but even the most non-melodic observer would know he’s in heaven.
He’s moved from his fundamental toolbox of rhythm and chord harmony to a more melodic, play by ear style in recent years, Krantz said. He asked someone at the clinic to strike a chord and he played extended single note leads to demonstrate. He quickly picked out the right key, though he emphasized that “just doing it”, playing without worrying about key, was the thing in itself.
That meant a lot to me. As a writer and a hobbyist musician I often find myself forcing creative ideas into preconceived notions, only to fall prey to frustration and anxiety. In my work as a journalist, I often find the best and most succinct clarity comes when I “just do it”, write without thinking about writing. This requires that the research and information gathering be complete. It’s then that I can let go and write.
Krantz said that one of the best ways to learn to play by ear is to just sit down and pick out simple songs. He used Happy Birthday to You as an example, though the way he picked it out, harmonizing the scale and playing counterpoint to the main melody, was light years beyond what mere mortals could do.
Again, this was meaningful for me in that I often try to sound out pop tunes or classical lines, often succeeding with the first few notes only to get lost about the sixth bar.
Krantz, Carlock and Jackson began playing just after 5 p.m. on Sunday. The artistry they displayed, the looks, the head gestures, evidenced a deep connection with the music at hand. Beyond music and art it was a moment of three becoming one, a trinity of communication that was a thing of beauty to behold.
They key to art, as in life, is just do it man. !