Grammy-nominated pianist and composer David Lanz has been keeping incredibly busy as 2012 rolls along. His latest release, Here Comes the Sun, is his second exploration of The Beatles’ songbook, following last year’s acclaimed Liverpool: Re-Imagining the Beatles. His instrumental arrangements, often veering drastically from the originals, have offered some of the most daring and fresh reinterpretations of The Beatles’ music to date.
Lanz’s latest projects include Time Travelers, an album of improvised compositions recorded with flutist Michael Graham Allen, and an upcoming 25th anniversary reworking of his Billboard chart-topper, Cristofori’s Dream. Lanz recently shared his thoughts about all this and more, including his involvement with The Snowman Foundation, a Pacific Northwest-based organization devoted to furthering music education for young students.
I’m almost off the Beatle train. We’ll see. I hate saying never. I’m in the process of trying to put together another holiday album. One of the pieces I’ve already arranged, but haven’t recorded yet, is “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon. But other than that, I’m happily done with my re-imagining of The Beatles’ work. I still really enjoy playing their music live, so I guess I’m never really over it.
How did the recording of Here Comes the Sun differ from Liverpool?
I took a lot more time with Here Comes the Sun. I had some leftover ideas from Liverpool. The last song on the album, “Sir George,” I wrote that piece during the Liverpool sessions and put it aside. I hammered on “I Am the Walrus” for seven months, just as an arrangement, before I was happy with what I’d come up with.
For Here Comes the Sun, I did a lot of arranging for the other guys [flutist Gary Stroutsos, cellist Walter Gray, bassist Keith Lowe]. It saved a lot of time in the studio. I knew if I came up with a flute part, it would work with the piano part, which I had already locked down. This was sort of unusual for me. When I did my smooth jazz records, I did a couple of them in Los Angeles with some top-notch studio guys. It was fine to make it more improvisational, which seemed to be more in the spirit of the material. But with Here Comes the Sun, I wanted it to be more like a contemporary classical approach where you don’t really improvise. You’re creating parts.
You’ve also made a solo piano version of Here Comes the Sun available. How come you didn’t do that with Liverpool?
The way I recorded Liverpool, half the album was recorded live in the studio with the drummer and bass player. Because of the way we set up, there was leakage. When you listen to the piano track, you hear the bass. We tried to put baffles around everything and did the best we could under the circumstances. If I knew going in that I would really want just an isolated piano track, we would have done it differently.
With Here Comes the Sun, I recorded all the piano tracks first in my home studio, so I had pristine recordings of everything prior to adding any of the other musicians to the tracks. I had plenty of time to get the material to Hal Leonard, so I had a solo piano book and record ready to go. I thought it would be a nice addition for someone who just wanted to sit with the book, listening to just the piano track. It might make it a little easier to learn the songs. I looked at it as kind of a tool for someone who wants to play the arrangements out of the book.
Plus it’s kind of cool to just hear exactly what you’re doing on piano with each song.
I’ve heard that my whole career. I’ve tried to do these records with giant orchestras and stuff. People go, “Oh man, I love this record, but I’d rather hear you just play it by yourself.” I can appreciate that. I’d rather see Bob Dylan sitting on a stool by himself, or really any artist that writes personal material. It’s the whole MTV Unplugged thing, can you man up and play the songs without all the bells and whistles? And in my case, yeah, I love doing that.
Tell me about the “Ten Grands” benefit concert, which is scheduled for May 12, 2012 at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall.
It was started by Michael Allen Harrison, a very well-known composer, pianist, performer, and educator in Portland, Oregon. He started a foundation called The Snowman Foundation. They create music scholarships; it’s all about musical education, and buying instruments for churches and teen centers. He had the idea of doing this show, and in the beginning it was him and a lot of other pianists from the Portland area.
It’s ten pianists, each playing a grand piano?
Yeah, with a lot of variety: classical, jazz, blues. There’s this guy they bring in every year, Michael Kaeshammer. He’s this amazing boogie-woogie master. The piano basically looks like it’s going to ignite. What we do as far as the show itself, everyone gets featured as a soloist at one point in the evening. Then there are times when we break into duos, trios or quartets. For a few pieces, all ten of us play. Those are very orchestrated, we’re not all playing the same parts. This year we’re doing a tribute to West Side Story.
Sounds like there’s really something for everyone.
There’s always a nice variety of music that appeals to a wide group of folks. It’s pretty much sold out every year. Just recently it’s shown up on some top ten lists of must-see shows in Seattle. They do a nice job with the staging too, putting the pianos at various levels so the audience can see everyone.
Michael Graham Allen was probably the first white guy to use the Native American flute way back in the ‘70s, under the name Coyote Oldman. He was one of the first flute makers to rediscover the Anasazi flute, which is a really interesting sounding flute. He was in town during a festival for flute makers, so I was hanging out with him and Gary Stroutsos. We thought it would be fun to get together and jam.
Most of what ended up on the Time Travelers record was a session we did a couple years ago. The three of us went into the studio and I had prepared a couple motifs. I set up three or four keyboards in the studio and we just went, “Ready, go.” He called them “in-studio improvisational compositions.” It’s a beautiful record, super chill. They’re not songs per se, more like little audio journeys. It’s a beautiful record for meditation or falling asleep - in a good way. We just captured a nice moment in the studio.
In 1988, your Cristofori’s Dream went to number one on Billboard’s New Age Albums chart. Nearly 25 years later, you’re revisiting that album?
Yes, I’ve already rerecorded the whole album as a solo piano record, as opposed to trying to redo it the way I did back in the day. I approached it with a little more improvisation. It’s basically the same, the same songs, but I tried to open them up a little bit. I’m going to jump in at some point and start writing historical notes about the recording and trying to write something about Bartolomeo Cristofori himself.
That should be a real treat for your fans, as well as a way for new listeners to discover your most popular work.
I have to say, “Cristofori’s Dream” - the song itself - has never waned. It’s more popular than it used to be. If you go to YouTube and search for it, you get about 900 videos. People keep using the music. Kids keep learning it and playing it at their recitals. That’s pretty cool to have an evergreen piece of music.
David Lanz’s music, DVDs, and songbooks are available at his official website, as well as more information about his upcoming performances and clinics. For more information about the May 12th, 2012, “Ten Grands” benefit concert in Seattle, Washington, please visit their official website.