Cutting-edge jazz-fusion guitarist Wayne Krantz believes that sometimes discomfort is necessary to move forward, and his latest release, Howie 61, takes him squarely out of his comfort zone. The album features composed, vocal-driven songs that, on the surface, are reminiscent of the music of Steely Dan (a band that Krantz worked with early in his career). The effort radically differs from Krantz’s past outings, which almost exclusively highlighted his adventurous and completely improvised, rhythmically dizzying guitar trio excursions. While some guitar-centric fans might long to hear more of Krantz’s ridiculous fretboard wizardry, he saw this as a critical step in his evolution. “It was really kind of a reaction against what I’d been doing,” Krantz says. “Every single record I’ve made since ’93 has been a band record and it’s been trio. I just couldn’t see the point in doing another document of another trio.” He called upon an all-star lineup featuring 18 of the biggest names, including John Patitucci, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Tal Wilkenfeld for the making of Howie 61. “When I get ideas like that I tend to sort of go whole hog, so I went from three [people] to 18.”

The seeds for Howie 61 were planted when Krantz gave up his decade-plus residency at New York City’s legendary 55 Bar on June 28, 2007. The 55 was Krantz’s sonic laboratory—it was there that he cultivated his unique style—but after playing every Thursday for years upon years, he feared becoming musically stagnant. During its run, Krantz’s 55 Bar gig was the ultimate shooting gallery for obsessive guitar junkies. A fan named Marc Bobrowsky needed his fix so bad that he would show up at every gig with a DAT machine and mics clipped to his glasses and just sit there motionless and record. When Krantz eventually checked out the recordings, he liked them so much that he mastered and released them as 2 Drink Minimum and Greenwich Mean. Two other official releases—Your Basic Live and Your Basic Live ’06 —later emanated from the 55, and to the delight of his voracious fans, Krantz also sold live recordings of virtually every gig from the bar through his website.

With the 55 Bar no longer the creative hub for Krantz’s esoteric explorations, he turned his focus to studio recording and even started incorporating vocals. He recorded Krantz Carlock Lefebvre in 2009 with his longest running trio, consisting of drummer Keith Carlock and bassist Tim Lefebvre. Howie 61 takes Krantz’s new direction to the next level. We caught up with the sonic pioneer in his Alphabet City pad to discuss where he’s headed, get insight into some of his unique rhythmic approaches, and to find out why he puts black tape on the headstock of his Tyler guitar.

Howie 61 features a strong emphasis on vocals. What prompted that?
The sound of voice and a guitar trio is like a complete sound to me. When you have a trio, you’re trying to figure out ways to make it sound fuller. Clapton and Hendrix were arguably the fathers of rock and blues-rock guitar, and they both balanced what they did with vocals. They weren’t instrumentalists. Early on, with the record Two Drink Minimum, I was wondering what it would be like to add voice. How would it work? How would it balance with the playing? What could the words be about? How could I sing it and play? It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but I knew I needed a studio to do it because, at the time, I was only making live records. The last record, Krantz Carlock Lefebvre, was actually the first studio record I made since Long to be Loose [1993].

Are you aiming to reach a different audience by adding vocals?
I’m not because I don’t have access to audiences. My audience is whoever accidentally finds me.

But you do have a hardcore following. Every one of your 55 Bar gigs that I’ve been to over the years was incredibly packed, with lines stretching around the block— an impressive feat, especially considering your music doesn’t really pander to an audience.
No, because that’s not part of the concept—it’s not showbiz in that way. The world is filled with that and I think there’s a slight need out there for alternatives to that kind of presentation, and that’s what I offer. If it’s crowded it’s because there are enough people that get it and want a little change occasionally. That’s what they get when they see me play. Actually that brings up a good point and maybe I should say this, I have always tried to figure out how to make what I’m doing as accessible as it can be within the limitations of what I believe and what I think is right for the audience.

How so?
That factored into the decision, for example, to really get into my funk side and have a groove drummer. Part of that decision was, “Hey, this is going to help people like it.” I think that if you don’t do that, then it’s really up to chance whether anyone will come to your show. I’m not into obscurity. I’m not into being inscrutable or complicated or abstract. I want to figure out how to make what I do as easy to understand as possible without compromising it.

A lot of your music is based on live improvisation and feeding off of and reacting to what happens on the bandstand. I’m assuming that you might not have had the same telepathy with some of the musicians on Howie 61 that you do with guys that have been part of your working trios for years. How much of this record is improvised?
With the exception of the Ice Cube cover “Check Yo Self,” Howie is not a group improvisation record. It’s a composed record and the songs are shorter. The improvisation on this record mostly happens against other composed stuff.

Not long ago you did a few nights of covers at the 55 Bar of music by bands like The Strokes. Are you intentionally choosing material from bands that a hardcore Wayne Krantz fan might not take seriously?
The reason I did that was just to break up what I’d been doing down there. I hadn’t done covers in my life, professionally, until that series of four or five gigs that I did at 55 Bar. I chose a different artist to cover each night and we just played that artist’s music all night. I used their music just like I use the little compositional bits in my own music to improvise from. We ended up treating their music just like it was mine.

On songs like “Son of a Scientist,” there are parts that are reminiscent of Steely Dan. Have they influenced you musically?
They’ve influenced me greatly rhythmically, in terms of my rhythmic placement.

On your website, you talked about how your time wasn’t cutting it during the Steely Dan sessions. That’s pretty mind-boggling because most people consider your time to be incredibly strong. Can you explain what that’s about?
I’ve always had good time, but that’s when I realized the difference between having good time as sort of a jazz player and having good time as sort of an R&B player—there’s a different kind of placement. I’m generalizing wildly right now, but Donald [Fagen] and Walter’s [Becker] placement is centered in the beat. It’s in the middle of the beat. It’s not in front of the beat. It’s not behind the beat, although they experiment with that. They feel the time is in the center of the beat and so does their rhythm section. The guys they hire to play bass and drums also feel the center of the beat. That’s coming from an R&B place. I wasn’t there at that point—I couldn’t hear that, I couldn’t find that place. So it sounded like the band was in one time feel and I was in another and at that moment I realized, “I need to get this,” because I like the power that rhythmic ideas have when they are dead center like that. I wondered how it would work if my ideas—which are pretty radically different from their ideas rhythmically—were placed similarly, in that middle of the beat. I started working hard on that and I got it together. So, since then, my time has gotten better.