by Ian Mann
August 10, 2017
Lenz has carved out a distinctive niche for himself in the hinterland where jazz, rock and other musics meet and, in the main, it’s an interesting and exciting place to be.
(Jade Buddha Records BDL114)
Alerted by the excellent Worcester based music/listings magazine SLAP (the acronym stands for Supporting Local Arts & Performers) I recently enjoyed a performance by the American guitarist B.D. Lenz and his trio at the city’s Marr’s Bar venue.
Considering my relatively close proximity it was surprising that this was my first ever visit to the Marr’s Bar, a small, old school rock venue. I rather liked it and wouldn’t hesitate to return again if the right band comes along.
Hidden among the listings for a plethora of tribute acts I found a feature on the Lenz trio that mentioned that the guitarist had been influenced by some of my favourite musicians, notably his fellow axe slingers Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Something told me that I just had to check this guy out and I wasn’t disappointed.
I attended the gig as a ‘punter’ so I’m not going to write in too much detail about the show. Lenz was joined by James Rosocha on electric bass and Joe Falcey at the drums and the trio delivered two hugely enjoyable sets that mixed jazz, rock, blues, funk and Americana influences while managing to avoid the clichés of 70s style fusion. In the environment of the Marr’s Bar the emphasis was at the rock end of the spectrum but Lenz later explained to me that the trio vary their act to fit the venue at which they are playing. A visit to the Verdict Jazz Club in Brighton, for example, would see them turning down the volume and playing a greater number of jazz standards.
Lenz is a regular visitor to Britain and in 2015 released the album “Live in the UK!”, a very enjoyable “official bootleg” that was actually recorded at another venue in Worcester (the Arts Workshop) by the same line up. Tonight’s set featured a number of tunes from that album including an inspired arrangement of Radiohead’s “Creep” and a jaw dropping segue of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman” and The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. This habit of delivering memorable covers allied to a country-esque twang on some of the pieces found me adding the name of Bill Frisell to that list of Lenz’s influences. I’d also suggest “Blow By Blow” era Jeff Beck and the cult Swedish guitarist Janne Schaeffer.
But Lenz is more than just the sum of his influences and in his synthesis of varying strands and styles of American music he has come up with a sound that is very much his own. A glance at his website http://www.bdlenz.com reveals that he has played with some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz including trumpeter Randy Brecker and bassists Mark Egan and Will Lee. He has also issued an impressive catalogue of recordings dating back to 1997, the majority of them on his own Jade Buddha imprint. He has also written extensively for TV and film soundtracks, his credits including the acclaimed television series “Breaking Bad”.
For all his talent the New Jersey based Lenz is a refreshingly down to earth character, a man of the people if you will. Towards the close of the Marr’s Bar gig he invited the members of the young support act, Lemonade, onto the stage to jam with the trio. I’m sure that these locally based music students gained much from listening to and playing with Lenz.
Lenz was also more than happy to talk to fans and when I approached him to purchase a copy of the “Live in the UK!” CD we entered into a lengthy and enjoyable conversation, mostly about our favourite guitar players. On hearing about the Jazzmann blog B.D. was kind enough to give me a copy of his latest studio album, “Manifesto”, for review purposes so many thanks to him for that.
Recorded in 2016 “Manifesto” features Lenz on both electric and acoustic guitars and is more obviously a studio artefact with the guitarist joined by an expanded line up including Geoff Mattoon (reeds), Dan Paul (keyboards) Abe Fogle (drums) and Kevin Soffera (percussion). Bass duties are shared between Rosocha (electric) and Ken Pendergast (acoustic). The voice of Doug Hawk appears on one cut. The focus is firmly on original material with all eleven tracks composed by Lenz.
“Manifesto” was supported by a Kickstarter campaign with Lenz even inviting his fans to have their say on which tunes should be included on the album.
Things kick off with the breezy, Latinesque “Around The World” which combines catchy melodies with infectious rhythms, the latter featuring Fogle’s hard driving drumming allied to the exotica of Soffera’s percussion. Lenz, Mattoon and Paul all feature prominently with the latter deploying both acoustic and electric keyboard sounds. Fluent solos come from Lenz on electric guitar and Mattoon on sax. At times it veers a little too closely towards the sphere of ‘smooth jazz’ but the piece is ultimately saved by the vivacity of the performances.
“Karmalectro”, which I seem to recall being played at the Marr’s Bar, favours a harder, funkier groove with Paul adopting a dirty synth sound as Lenz and Mattoon exchange phrases above the propulsive rhythms generated by Rosocha and Fogle. Mattoon subsequently stretches out on tenor before handing over to Lenz.
“Left, Right & Wrong” maintains the energy levels with its forthright rock and funk rhythms as Lenz turns up the volume with some scorching rock guitar soloing. Paul mixes organ and piano sounds and Mattoon digs in on tenor as Fogle’s whiplash drumming drives the band forward and occasionally forces its way into the spotlight.
There’s no let up with “True North”, another piece to combine strong melodies with powerful rhythms. Here Lenz displays a Metheny-esque gift for melody and the piece includes a memorable solo from the leader that incorporates both jazz and rock guitar sounds. When Lenz cranks up the volume and steps on the sustain pedal he positively soars.
As its title suggests “Slo Yer Roll” is more relaxed with Lenz adopting a softer, jazzier electric guitar sound. Paul takes his first real solo on piano, enjoyably mixing jazz and blues with boogie, but I could do without the rather gloopy string-synth colourations that he adds elsewhere. Lenz himself also takes a solo, sounding vaguely Metheny-like in tone.
Paul adopts a sinister, harder edged synth sound on the evocative slow burning “The Distance Between Us”, a piece which eventually sees Lenz taking flight and soaring in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour. Elsewhere the addition of Doug Hawk’s wordless vocals recalls various editions of the Pat Metheny Group through the 80s, 90s and 00s.
The introduction to “Zodiac” is the closest that Lenz gets to sounding like vintage fusion on a piece with a title possibly inspired by Billy Cobham or Chick Corea. But besides the synths there’s also an underlying bluesiness which comes out when Paul switches to Hammond to accompany Lenz’s solo. Mattoon subsequently stretches out on sax before the piece comes full circle with a fusion-esque coda.
“Seeing It Through” is the album’s ‘anthem’ or ‘power ballad’, song like in structure and featuring ponderous acoustic piano and soaring guitars and saxes. But again there’s a vitality and grittiness about the playing that transcends any allegations of over-sentimentality or pretentiousness.
“Natural Wonders” takes a funkier, hard edged approach with the meaty grooves balanced by the buoyant melodies. There’s a nimble solo from Lenz who shares the spotlight with Paul’s burbling synth. Meanwhile Mattoon appears on a type of EWI known as a ‘wind controller’.
Soffera takes over the drum kit for the impressionistic “Tales from a Stranger” which features Lenz doubling on acoustic and electric guitars and Pendergast on acoustic bass. Paul begins on organ before moving to acoustic piano to deliver a lyrical solo cushioned by his own synth washes. The keyboardist then underscores Lenz’s own thoughtful and melodic solo.
The album concludes on an energetic note as Fogle’s drums usher in the title track with its punchy shuffle grooves and strident melodies. Lenz links up with Mattoon before cranking up his electric guitar for the final time to deliver a searing, rock influenced solo, ramping up the energy as the rhythm section accelerate the groove behind him. Fogle’s drums briefly break cover before Lenz and Fogle dovetail on the outro which ends with a tantalising fade out.
There are occasions when “Manifesto” sounds a little over produced and in danger of flirting with blandness but in the main Lenz and his colleagues avoid this through the vitality of their performances. The leader maintains his edge and energy throughout and delivers some excellent solos, mixing up the styles and dynamics with a rare skill and fluency. Mattoon represents a good foil with his punchy sax playing and Paul deploys his various keyboards skilfully, despite the occasional lapse into saccharine synth territory. The front line musicians are kept on their toes by the vibrant, hard hitting grooves generated by Fogel and Rosocha who help to keep things moving along nicely.
“Manifesto” also demonstrates Lenz’s ability as a composer. There are some strong tunes and memorable melodies here that embrace a variety of musical styles without ever sounding contrived. B.D. Lenz has carved out a distinctive niche for himself in the hinterland where jazz, rock and other musics meet and, in the main, it’s an interesting and exciting place to be. Lenz’s music is as likely to be enjoyed by adventurous rock listeners as it is by jazz fans.
On balance I probably prefer the rawness of the “Live In The UK!” album which also acts as an excellent souvenir of the gig that I saw at the Marr’s Bar.
Lenz is a regular visitor to British shores and it’s likely that he’ll be returning again around the same time of year in 2018. The live environment is arguably the best place in which to appreciate his talent and I will endeavour to catch him at another gig next year. I’d urge anybody reading this to do the same, but in the meantime there is much to enjoy about his recorded output.
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