BY ZIVIT SHLANK Philadelphia-based guitarist and composer Mike Lorenz is a man of unwavering musical ambition. Following college in 2007, Mike’s been forging his path on the Philly and NYC jazz scenes, playing with groups such as The Hoppin’ John Jazz Orchestra and the Tony Gairo Big Band. In addition, he quickly established himself as one of the most in-demand and solid musicians having performed alongside local legends like trumpeter John Swana and pianist Skip Wilkins, among others. Since moving to Philly in 2009, Lorenz has wasted little time reaching his ultimate goal: to lead and record his own original music. Two years later, his first album as leader Of The Woods is finally out there. Featuring pianist Matt Mitchell, alto saxophonist Mike Cemprola, bassist Brian Howell and drummer Matt Scarano, the group have produced a debut that tips its hat to the melodic complexity of post-bop, while giving it a distinctly modern flair with subtly avant-garde innovations. They will be celebrating the release of their CD tonight at Moonstone Arts Center (aka Robbins Books) as part of Matthew Feldman’s Lucky Old Souls monthly concert series.
PHAWKER: Which artist, mentor or style first got you excited about music, inspired you to go beyond just listening?
MIKE LORENZ: I started playing guitar right around the time that I started to pay attention to music. When I started playing at the age of 11, rock guitar was still a big part of pop culture with lots of post-Nirvana type music going on. That stuff was my entry point to really wanting to play and improve with the guitar. A big influence on my early interest in jazz was my tennis coach in high school who was a big jazz head. He’d hire me for summer help with a few tennis programs he ran and in between classes he would tell me stories of seeing Miles Davis, Coltrane, and Wes Montgomery among other legendary musicians and recommend records for me to check out. The stories were so colorful and exciting that I was completely drawn in and inspired. I had a few teachers and other people in my life that pointed me towards jazz as an area of focus when I was around 16 or 17, although I didn’t really have the chance to get serious about studying jazz until I got to college.
PHAWKER: From a small town in Bucks County to Philly, I’m sure that move was tremendous in helping you branch out and evolve musically. How did you transition onto the scene?
MIKE LORENZ: The answer to this one probably tells a different story than the question seems to anticipate. After finishing high school I attended Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, a small liberal arts school. After graduating from there in 2007 I started writing my own music and seeking musicians that would be interested in playing original jazz music. Through a friend studying at University of the Arts I started to meet a bunch of musicians on the younger side of the Philly scene years before I even moved down here. When I finally moved to town in the fall of 2009 I was already playing with a lot of the people I now collaborate with on a regular basis. Since being a resident of the city I started to play in Daniel Peterson’s Truth and Consequence group as well as a small big band led by Ian O’Beirne called Slowburn. One thing I’ve found great about living in the city is that I can get together on a regular basis with musicians for house sessions, something that I couldn’t really get happening before. This has been really crucial to my development as well as the opportunity to be around more musicians with a desire to evolve, something I didn’t really experience in college.
PHAWKER: Of The Woods is your first CD as leader. What’s the meaning behind the album name and how would you describe the music?
MIKE LORENZ: Of the Woods refers to where the music on the CD originates. As someone that grew up in the country, outside of the urban vibe of a city, the music is created “of the woods” and not of something else because that is where I came from. A lot of the music on the album was written before I moved to the city and marks a particular moment in my creative life. I hope the listener hears these qualities in the music and enjoys relating to and experiencing music from this space. Unlike a lot of modern jazz recordings I feel like mine has a slower, more methodical pacing. The music is placed in front of you instead of bashing you over the head.
PHAWKER: Tonight’s the CD release party which is no doubt beyond exciting! What do you hope the audience will take away from it (aside from a CD)?
MIKE LORENZ: The release show features everyone on the CD except for pianist Matt Mitchell, who’s schedule is a little too busy to make the performance. Alto saxophonist Mike Cemprola, bassist Brian Howell and drummer Matt Scarano have done nearly every gig I’ve done of my own music in the past two years and know the music as well as I do having written it. Their creative contributions that are evident on the CD are even more apparent in a live setting. At a performance I hope audience members take away an experience that is exciting, memorable and heart felt. I try to portray a lot of honesty in my compositions and my performances so I hope this is apparent to the audience. I hope they think that the music they hear is something they could only experience at that show at that moment be it because of the freedom in the performance or in the unique qualities in the compositions.