Music

Steve Lantner Trio: What You Can Throw

Nils Jacobson

The jazz tradition is the best part of Steve Lantner's music, regardless of whatever other words you choose to slap on it.


Steve Lantner Trio

What You Can Throw

Label: HatOLOGY
US Release Date: 2008-03-03
UK Release Date: Unavailable
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The term "free jazz" was invented fifty years ago to get audiences to fill late night bars and thusly sell beer. No, actually, though it may have inadvertently had that effect at the beginning, at least until people caught on. The genre's name, as such, can be misleading, depending on which word you emphasize. Sure, it's usually atonal, irregular, and very spontaneous. But it's also jazz, which draws from a rich well of tradition about a hundred years old.

The jazz tradition is the best part of Steve Lantner's music, regardless of whatever other words you choose to slap on it. The pianist believes in and practices swing, bop, blues, and lyrical melodies. He regularly visits the border-crossing music of Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. He's got plenty of other quirks as well. Those touches cast the otherwise exploratory and occasionally explosive qualities of What You Can Throw in a familiar light, as if inviting the listener into Lantner's imaginary loft to sit in a comfortable chair and hear three guys throw it down. (As for what they're throwing down, that's up to you to decide, or at least that's what the title seems to suggest.)

This New England trio, which is very tight and empathetic, has some history, both on record and otherwise, dating back to 2003. Each player deserves attention, and as an organism they are more than the sum of their parts.

Joe Morris got his start and some deserved notoriety as a guitarist, then took up the bass, which he plays here. What's most striking is the way he adapts to different situations and moods, especially as the music progresses and evolves. He swings in a romantic way, even during otherwise frenzied episodes. That nostalgic vibe contrasts with his fairly aggressive approach--Morris, as a personality, is much more a pusher than a puller.

In contrast, Luther Gray is usually more restrained, or maybe just more subtle in his approach. Some drummers insist on aiming for the roof, but Gray deliberately moves along, adding detail, camouflaging the beat (as such) with understated, sometimes busy accents. That's not to say he's noodling or dabbling in indulgence. Quite the opposite, actually. He's a team player, one of three on the stage; his colors, details, and occasional punch glue a lot of seams together. Hear his minimalist bop on the opening track, for example, and contrast it with the surging edge of the second.

Four of the five pieces on What You Can Throw are over ten minutes, and you'll get more out of them if you stay the course. Likewise, if you listen to this disc instead of playing it in the background, you may find yourself whirled into its energy and sweetness. Lantner's piano clearly frames the changes as they evolve, circling around odd harmonies, adding melancholy or exuberance in abundance as the situation may require. He leaves a lot of loose ends as well, usually in transit, winding naturally off the path (as such). But he never clouds the picture with these parenthetical remarks, and neither do his partners with theirs.

What You Can Throw is engaging and inviting, as much intellectual as physical. The chemistry is right, the leader is bright, and the group sounds as good as ever.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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