New Age music has been called many things, and David Lanz knows them all – from industry terms like “smooth jazz” and “adult alternative” to caustic jibes like “peudo-classical” and “Yuppie crossover.” But the Grammy-nominated pianist who got his start playing keyboards on Terry Jacks’ one-hit wonder “Seasons in the Sun” rejects all classifications in favor of his own.
“I am,” he intoned dramatically, “HEAVY… MELLOW!” At which point he closed his eyes and began to snore.
Give the man credit, he’s got a sense of humor about his genre, which takes more abuse than any other form of music. But while Lanz’s contemporary George Winston has expanded his creative scope to include examinations of blues and early jazz, Lanz has doubled down on the sound that put his disc “Cristofori’s Dream” on top of the New Age charts in 1988. In the last couple of years, he’s been exploring the Beatles’ songbook through the discs “Liverpool: Re-Imagining the Beatles” and the soon-to-be-released “Here Comes the Sun.” Lanz displayed his interpretations of “the Lads” (his phrase) over two sets, with exemplary help from woodwind wizard Gary Stroutsos and ex-Kronos quartet cellist Walter Gray.
After Lanz opened on his own with the title track from the 1983 disc “Heartsounds,” Gray came on to assist with the title track from “Liverpool.” Lanz described the track as “a homage to the Beatles” with several Beatles quotes inside the piece. I wouldn’t call them “quotes” – more like “paraphrases.” Stroutsas joined them next for the first misstep of the night: A chamber-music arrangement of “Help.” The misstep had nothing to do with the trio, all of whom played beautifully on this and other tunes; the mistake was taking an adrenaline-filled pop song, stuffing it in a blender, and hitting “Liquify” button. The result was less a cry for help than it was a half-hearted request for assistance. As someone who saw the Beatles’ 1965 film – when it was new – in a Piccadilly Circus movie theatre, I was appalled. There’s interpretation, and then there’s desecration.
Lanz’s “classicalization” of Beatles music sort of worked on other pieces: “Penny Lane” went from a bustling thoroughfare to a quiet street on a Sunday morning, and the pastoral “Here Comes the Sun” almost approached the spirituality in the George Harrison composition. But the McCartney tunes “Mother Nature’s Son” and “For No One” seemed like different iterations of the same tired song, while “Please Please Me” was almost unrecognizable… and not in a good way! Lanz told us how Beatles producer George Martin had advised John Lennon to speed up his original composition. “So, naturally, I slowed it down,” Lanz chuckled. “Heavy Mellow, remember?” (Uhh, David? Some stuff you shouldn’t be proud of.)
The biggest offender was the first-set-closer “I Am the Walrus.” Every ounce of twisted tea that coursed through the original had been summarily squeezed out in favor of something that would sound great in my dentist’s office if he didn’t play WTRY. It was like someone playing a Bartok composition in the style of Vivaldi. In other words, it was a train wreck of Biblical proportion.
Again, this has nothing to do with the quality of the individual performances. While I find Lanz’s solo style to be serially overwrought, his technical base is sound as a dollar, and his originals “Cristofori’s Dream” and “Madre de la Terre” have a lot to say for themselves. Gray’s cello was achingly beautiful, and although he had few opportunities to solo, he more than made up for it with his textural embellishments.
For me, though, the star was Stroutsas, whose talent with wind instruments knows no bounds. His work on the Chinese Xiao flute was the best part of “For No One,” and he began the second set with a soul-searing solo rendition of “The River Song” on a hand-made Native American Woodpecker flute. The Hall’s celebrated acoustics have never been used better, and the glowing piece had more beauty and spirituality than anything that had come before or would come after.
The bottom line is this (and I give full credit to my date for the insight): The Beatles may not have the catalogue of longer-lived contemporaries like the Who or the Rolling Stones, but Lennon & McCartney made up for that by writing in more musical styles than any artist or group in rock history. Taking all that variety and all those influences and shoehorning them into a single musical matrix is literally pounding a round peg into a square hole. I have no doubt David Lanz’s interpretations come from a place of love. But you know what they say: You always hurt the one you love.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Gerald Zaffuts