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Concert Review and Interview By: Tracey Whitney
I’m a musician myself, and when I go on the road there are about 15 CDs that I never leave home without, and the Earl Klugh Trio’s “Sounds & Visions, Vol. 2” with the Royal Philharmonic is one of them. So I am beyond thrilled to be speaking with the legendary Earl Klugh right now.
Earl: Well, thank you so much!
SJM: Whose music would we find in your tour bag?
Earl: Oh boy! I would definitely bring some Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans records. I would also bring some early Bossa Nova, João Gilberto, etc. When I’m listening to music in the car, I always have Bossa Nova, and just about everything you think about or come across. I’m just a big fan of music - everything from country to straight-ahead jazz. I've been doing some work in Nashville the past couple of weekends, and this year I was able to go to the Chet Atkins convention. I met with Vince Gill (who’s on the new CD) while I was there. I really love a wide range of music. I’m like you, I kind of go off on adventures.
SJM: Including your new CD, “HandPicked,” you’ve recorded over thirty albums. Could you have even dreamt at 16 that you would have such a phenomenal career? And was it what your parents had in mind for you?
Earl: I’m sure it wasn’t what my parents had in mind for me, I will tell you that. My mom and dad were very conservative, and it was just a different world back then. “If you don’t go to school and get a college education…you won’t make anything of yourself.” I had to hear that all of my life…
SJM: All of your life? Well, maybe one day you’ll make it.
Earl: (Laughing) Yeah, maybe one day… It’s interesting; I don’t really know what pointed me in this direction. The thing that I’m forever grateful for is that my mom supported me in this effort. She never tried to discourage me. You hear stories of kids whose parents don’t have faith, and they move them along into something else. I was very lucky. My mom saw that I was really working hard to become something, and that was the greatest thing that ever could have happened to me. She had faith in me, you know? But I still had to finish high school at least, which I did. And it was just at a time (back in the late 60’s and early 70’s) when live music and recordings were really appreciated, and contemporary music was a powerful thing.
SJM: You start the CD off with an absolutely sublime rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie.” Are you a big fan of his music?
Earl: Oh yeah, very much! I was such a big fan that I ended up stalking him (laughs). He was having a concert in Atlanta, so we decided to go. As I’m pulling in to the parking lot, I see all these cars coming out, and I’m like, “What’s going on here?” It turns out that the water was off in the theater, so the show had been postponed to the following night. So, we went backstage and met the band – then we took Burt Bacharach out to dinner! I was really excited.
SJM: I imagine you could have had your pick of any musician in the world to collaborate with on this collection. What was it about fellow guitarist Bill Frisell, country singer Vince Gill and Ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro that made the cut?
Earl: I just really enjoy doing different things with different people. I grew up in Detroit but my mom was from Natchez, MS, so much of what was played around the house was either country music or the music of the day, like Nat King Cole. And of course the music we all grew up on as kids. I had a good variety to pick from.
SJM: I understand you and Bill Frisell gigged together as a trio with Russell Malone. Is that where you came up with the idea for recording “Blue Moon” on the new CD?
Earl: I just thought it would be a cool thing. “Blue Moon” was a great song; it was a standard and there was also a rock & roll version. Bill is like an artist out of time, meaning he’s not trying to “reinvent the wheel.” He’s trying (from my perspective, at least) to find a way to take something that’s an older genre and make it fresh. He has the slide guitar and all the things that hearken back to the 50’s. He’s still a modern player when he wants to be; he can Bebop and everything. He’s always been one of my favorites, and we’re actually really good friends.
SJM: Vince Gill is your guest vocalist on “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” How did that come about?
Earl: I met him 4 or 5 years ago at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads show. Since then, Vince and I have done some things together, so it was very comfortable working with him, and I thought we’d be a great mix for that song. Funny thing, years ago I met Eric when we were both touring in Japan. When we first got there, my band was checking into the hotel and Eric Clapton was checking his band in at the same time, so I struck up a conversation with him (he knew who I was). Of course, he was playing the big stadiums, and it was when I was first starting out, so I was playing the smaller venues. He asks me, “How long are you going to be in Japan?” Turns out we were both going to be there for a couple of weeks. Then he says to me, “Is it OK with you if we come play with you guys after our show is over?” (Laughing) What? I said, “SURE!” He came in several nights, and we had a LOT of fun.
SJM: I first saw Jake Shimabukuro at the Playboy Jazz Festival, and he knocked me out! What was your thought process leading up to the duet of the Eagle’s classic, “Hotel California?” Where there any challenges you hadn’t anticipated?
Earl: When you’re just listening to it, and then you actually try to go into the studio and record it in a new way, there are sometimes unique challenges. The ranges and registers of the ukulele and my guitar are very different, and sometimes when you get underneath the microphones you need to make adjustments. It was a delicate balance! I’ve done quite a bit of playing with Jake. We were on a jazz cruise a couple of years ago, and one of the main things the audience likes is for all the artists on the ship to play things off the cuff, which I really enjoy. That’s how Jake and I got together, and he’s a brilliant player. As far as choosing “Hotel California,” I knew he was an Eagles fan like myself, and when I was thinking about that song I knew it would appeal to him, and luckily it worked really well.
SJM: Tell us about your original composition, “In Six.” What does the title refer to?
Earl: I’ve always enjoyed different time signatures, and I really like 6/8 time because it’s a jazz feel more than 3/4 time is, which is more of a waltz. So it’s a good one because it’s light and airy and has a pretty good melody.
SJM: Wow, Little Anthony and the Imperials “Going Out of My Head!” Aside from the obvious (it’s such a wonderful song), what inspired you to include it on this CD?
Earl: Oh, its just one of the all-time great songs! It’s always been one of my favorites. So now all I have to do is record his other great hit, “Hurt So Bad.” I’ve got to figure that one out.
SJM: You are perhaps the most esteemed nylon acoustic guitar and fingerstyle player of our generation. Tell me, do you have a secret room in your house full of Fender Stratocasters, wah-wah pedals and picks where you rock out to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn?
Earl: (Laughs) I have a lot of guitars down there, but no, no, no – I don’t ever turn anything up that loud! I’m a big fan of Carlos Santana. That’s about as electric as I get.
SJM: Really, so you never even listened to Jimi Hendrix when you were coming up?
Earl: Oh yes, sure, of course! I can’t really articulate a lot of it, but it just never was my thing.
SJM: Which of your albums is your favorite? And if you could have a do-over, which would it be - and why?
Earl: My favorite was “Finger Painting” with Dave Grusin - it was just a great, great record! Wow, if I had a chance to have a do-over, it would definitely be Magic In Your Eyes. I did 3 albums with Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, and they were great producers and musicians, but we were getting feedback and static that wasn’t very good from my record company at the time; so I started doing my own albums. Which I’m glad I did, because at least the label trusted me enough after my first 3 records to move into another direction. “Magic In Your Eyes” was my weakest album, but after that all my records were, in my estimation, very strong.
SJM: You’ve collaborated with Aretha Franklin, Jamie Foxx, Roberta Flack, Mary J. Blige, Kenny Loggins, Al Jarreau and many others. Who do your still dream of working with?
Earl: Wow, I haven’t thought about that in years! But I will tell you who I love collaborating with: Hubert Laws. He’s one of the most incredible musicians on the planet. When we were doing some of the orchestra recordings, Hubert would come in and play from time to time (just to keep in shape) and always blow everybody out of the water. Oh, Joe Sample is one! We did a show some years ago at a really nice, old theater in Chicago. If I’m not mistaken, I had my group in a trio and Joe had his group the same way. So it was a guitar trio for half the show, piano for the other, and then we all played together. That sticks in my mind as one of my favorite, favorite shows ever because once we got away from our respective repertoires, we were able to just call out tunes and play things that we’d probably never play together again.
SJM: Tell us about Earl Klugh's Weekend of Jazz. Originally, you were just at the Broadmoor Hotel and Resort in Colorado Springs. Now you’ve added Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Nice!
Earl: That came about when I moved to Atlanta. Some people here were putting things together musically, and I was fortunate enough to find and work with them. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
SJM: How big are these events?
Earl: The Weekend of Jazz at The Broadmoor is in the spring, and the Weekend of Jazz at Kiawah Island is in November. They’re both 3-day events, with over a 1,000 attendees each. It’s been very successful, and always sells out.
SJM: Collard or Mustard greens? And ham hocks or turkey legs?
Earl: (Laughs) Collard greens and turkey legs!
SJM: You’re in the audience watching your dream quartet (and you can mix time periods). Who would be on the stage?
Earl: Hmm, my quartet would be Bill Evans on piano, Ray Brown on bass, Harvey Mason on drums and George Benson on guitar!
SJM: What would your fans be surprised to find out about you?
Earl: Oh gosh, I’m not that interesting! Let’s see… I’m a big movie buff. I go to movies all the time.
SJM: Really? See, I’m surprised!
Earl: Oh yeah, I love movies! I like drama, I like action movies, and I like classic movies. I just really enjoy going to the movies!
SJM: Is there anything else you’d like to tell your fans about “HandPicked?”
Earl: Well, I hope everybody enjoys it, because I spent a lot of work on getting everything just right. I think it’s in really good hands, and the recording sounds GREAT. It took us a long time to get to that, because when you’re playing guitar, you hear squeaks once in a while, and you hear this and that… I’ve gotten better over the years, and I don’t squeak as much. And actually, the strings and everything have gotten much better too, so I’m really happy with the recording because its very clean and reflective of what I wanted it to be.
Earl Klugh at the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo - Music to sooth the savage beast… 6/28/13
Albuquerque, NM. Now there’s a town that doesn’t immediately conjure up visions of rabid jazz fans, but this Southwestern city of just under 1 million doesn’t play when it comes to 3 things: (1) Green Chili, (2) Balloon Fiestas, and (3) live music. As a matter of fact, the New Mexico Jazz Festival is a two-week long extravaganza of concerts bouncing back and forth between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Yeah, serious fans here, and the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo’s Amphitheater was a perfect setting for tonight’s concert. Surrounded by lush trees and rock formations to the front, and the Seals and Sea Lions exhibit behind, a gentle breeze kissed the standing room only crowd that turned out to greet a Smooth Jazz Great.
There are MANY extremely talented guitarists out there, however, with the exception of a handful, if you’re hearing a song on the radio for the first time, you’ll have to wait for the DJ to announce their set list to know who you’re listening to. And then, there are the players who hover in the stratosphere, with a sound so uniquely theirs, that only the name of the song itself is required - Wes Montgomery, Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, and well… Grammy® Award winning acoustic guitarist, Earl Klugh. Case in point: while walking through the crowd at tonight’s concert, I overheard a woman saying, “I love Earl Klugh because his sound is so distinctive.” Bingo!
Gracing the stage with Mr. Klugh tonight was fellow Grammy® Award winner, alto saxophonist Eric Marienthal, who, with 13 solo CD’s under his belt, has also played with Chick Corea (who virtually “discovered” him), Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Ramsey Lewis, Elton John, The Rippingtons and The Yellowjackets.
The rest of the band is rounded out by impressive pedigrees as well. Bassist and Musical Director Al Turner (solo CD, “Sunny Days”) has played with Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Nancy Wilson, Randy Crawford, and Gladys Knight to name a few. Keyboard player David Lee (aka David Lee Spradley), with Klugh since 1993 (bringing mucho attitude – standing at his keyboard and motioning to the crowd to participate), has played with Parliament Funkadelic, Jeffrey Osborne, Stanley Clarke, Bob James, and Boney James. Drummer Ron Otis has toured with Klugh and pianist Bob James for over a decade (solo CD, “Upfront”). Together, the supporting trio works as a well-oiled machine, bringing funk or sensitivity to compliment the guitar genius.
Earl Klug may be “the star,” but the soft-spoken maestro clearly considers the ensemble to be a collaborative experience – where everyone gets a chance to shine. And with a career spanning three decades, 12 additional Grammy® Nominations, millions of albums sold - including 23 Top 10 records, and 4 #1’s on Billboard magazine’s Jazz Album charts, it was certain to be a night of hits!
The concert opened with the Latin infused, “Brazilian Stomp.” Klugh’s melodious string work merged with Marienthal’s swinging horn to get the audience swaying. The two stars played off of, and inspired one another throughout the evening’s performance. A rendition of Bob James’ “Baby Cakes” ignited the spectators - with Marienthal performing a call and response…until his trills became too complicated for singers in the audience (tons O’ fun!) Other highlights of the evening were “Across The Sand,” “Midnight In San Juan,” and “Doc” (a happy little ditty that just brings a smile to your face). The band “gave the drummer some” on “Vonetta,” as everyone left the stage to allow the very versatile Ron Otis to show us his stuff – and he brought it! The classic, “Living Inside Your Love” brought thunderous screams and applause from the audience, while David Lee’s surprising intro to “Dr. Macumva,” Parliament Funkadelic’s “Atomic Dog” had them dancing in the aisles! Klugh gave the audience just a nibble from his new CD, “Hand Picked” (release date July 30th), enticing the crowd with the deliciously sublime “Alfie.” (And it worked, after the show concertgoers lined up to preorder.) The encore featured a bass solo by Al Turner, that, had you closed your eye’s, you’d have sworn you were listening to Larry Graham. Crazy funky! And then, the FINAL standing ovation. Even the seals and sea lions joined in with a chorus…
Really. No one else plays quite like Earl Klugh! Long after the majority of his former contemporaries have become just a memory in a stack of vinyl, he’s still here – with that same sweet smile from the1979 “Heartstrings” cover, gently soothing us with that guitar of his. He’s just that good. No, he’s that GREAT. And like Montgomery, Paul and Hendrix before him, he’s a true master at his craft. His sensuously delicate touch on the nylon strings is known worldwide. The music, so mellow – it never shouts, just pulls you into the warmth like a moth to a flame. Hmmm, maybe that’s the whole idea…