Earl Klugh’s music matches his disposition; warm, relaxed, gentle and thoughtful. The Atlanta-based nylon string guitarist took a break from his sold-out weekend engagement at Blues Alley to drink coffee (must have been decaf) and listen to music. Afterward, he reflected on changes in the music business since he began recording 33 years ago. In spite of vicissitudes in the record industry, Klugh has cultivated an audience loyal to his smooth blend of jazz, pop and contemporary. His latest release is The Spice of Life (Koch).
1. Ulf Wakenius
“Seven Days of Falling” (from Love Is Real, ACT). Wakenius, guitars; Lars Danielsson, bass; Lars Jansson, piano; Morten Lund, drums; Till Brönner, trumpet; Radio String Quartet. Recorded in 2007.
Before: It’s a very nice piece; great groove, memorable melody. The way that the band was able to move the piece along, it intensified without knocking you over the head. At first the electronics were a little off-putting, but once it developed it became really interesting. I’ve never heard anything quite like that. The tune is understated, the guitar solo was great. Whoever the guitarist is obviously is a really good player because there were moments when it really took off. But he was more concerned with the piece as a whole.
After: I don’t know him. And I didn’t know that Esbjörn Svensson died. I like the guitarist’s ideas. His solo moments were little gems. And he really laid in the groove. This is really cool.
2. Sammy Davis Jr. & Laurindo Almeida
“The Shadow of Your Smile” (from Sammy Davis, Jr. Sings and Laurindo Almeida Plays, DCC). Davis, vocal; Almeida, guitar. Recorded in 1966.
Before: [chuckles] That sounds like Sammy Davis, Jr. to me. When he sang in the upper register, that gave it away. Guitar player is great. He’s like a total, old-school finger style guy, though his harmonies are modern. It’s not Charlie Byrd because Charlie has a different sound. It was really intimate. The strumming tremolo was put to good use. He’s a great accompanist, right in the moment with relaxed phrasing. I don’t know if this was rehearsed, but it felt like it was spontaneous. I enjoyed it.
After: Oh my goodness. Laurindo is one of my favorites from early on. I had a album of his called Broadway Solo Guitar where he did “People” and “Little Girl Blue.” He really has a flair for the dramatic on some of those things. His arrangements are magical. He’s always been one of my top 3 or 4 guys for his beautiful, romantic sound, which is almost a lost art. He was a big man with big fingers, like Segovia. He plays articulately and he’s also got the warmth too. I like this record very much.
3. Julian Lage
“All Blues” (from Sounding Point, Decca). Lage, guitar; Taylor Eigsti, piano. Recorded in 2008.
“All Blues.” They really grooved hard, right from the beginning. The guitar had an interesting tone. I couldn’t tell if it was nylon strings or steel strings. I love the interplay. They were really listening to each other. It was conversational–feels like they play together on a regular basis. Lots of interesting harmonic ideas, very clever.
After: [examines the guitar on the cover] This is definitely a steel string guitar because that’s a metallic pick-up. It looks custom-made. Beautiful guitar, too.
4. David Fiuczynski
“Moonring Bacchanal” (from KIF Express, Fuze). Fiuczynski, guitar; Steve Jenkins, bass; Skoota Warner, drums. Released in 2008.
Before: That’s all over the place but it’s really well done. Kind of like Les Paul meets Jimi Hendrix meets Esquivel. I really like it. It defies any category. The time signature and rhythm track is wild. Every time I tried to count the time it turned around on me. With all those effects, it was a lot of fun.
After: Never heard of him. But he knows who he is, that’s for sure. That’s wonderful, really fresh. I’d like to know who he listens to. I would suspect most of his influences have little to do with the guitar, per se. He seems to be reaching for something beyond the traditional. He’s a fine player—you can hear that—so he’s taken that to another place. He’s not showing off but it’s apparent that he has a full range of harmonic ideas.
5. Grant Green
“I Wish You Love” (from Street of Dreams, Blue Note). Green, guitar; Larry Young, organ; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1964.
Before: It’s got to be Grant Green. I’m not sure of the record, but the way Grant phrases is so distinctive. Like Wes, he has a totally identifiable sound. For guitar players, it’s almost like what Errol Garner would be to a piano player. I love the economy in what he does. He swings really hard. I like his choice of notes and the way he uses space and time to create effect. Very few chords, ever.
Is he playing horn lines or guitar lines?
Good question. To me, he’s playing guitar lines. The thing about Grant is, he started making pop records but he did it very well. He understood how to play with electric pianos. He was very adaptable throughout his career, though he had ups and downs.
Any favorite Grant Green records?
About 7 or 8 years ago Blue Note reissued some sessions that had Grant with just bass and drums and I was very curious to hear them. I bought them in anticipation of hearing him play chords. But he didn’t. He just played his thing and there was all that space. He was a different type of player. I loved him.
About: I’ve heard this but I don’t have it. That’s a great band. I’ve always liked this song. [looks at back cover photo] Boy, Grant is young there.
6. Norman Brown with Everette Harp
“Til My Baby Comes Home” (from Simply The Very Best of Today’s Smooth Jazz Guitar, Shanachie). Brown, guitar; Harp, tenor saxophone; Rex Rideout, keyboards; Mike White, drums; Larry Kimpel, bass; Dwight Sills, guitar; Lenny Castro, percussion. Reissued 2008.
Before: That’s really well done. I can’t tell who the guitar player is but he’s completely influenced by George Benson–sound and everything. These are both great players. And this is a Luther Vandross song. The arrangement is really clever; They have elements of five or six different songs in the groove of this piece and they’re flowing through it effortlessly. For this type of music it’s done about as well as I’ve heard because the arrangement is so slick. I enjoyed this from beginning to end. It’s what I like of the contemporary style, as opposed to the stuff that just kind of sits there. This had a lot of energy, a lot of drive, a lot of movement and chord changes and a lot of great playing.
After: Yeah, they’re both friends of mine. Norman is a really nice guy. Sometimes guys playing the same instrument, you don’t get along, but I always liked Norman. The times that I’ve talked to him, he seems like a level-headed guy. And I’ve worked with Everette from time to time and he’s an amazing player. I love him. That was great. It’s an imaginative arrangement. They played the song and still came up with something entirely new. Very creative. I really enjoyed it.
7. Luciana Souza
“Pra Que Discutir Com Madame” (from Brazilian Duos, Sunnyside). Souza, vocal; Romero Lubamba, guitar. Recorded in
Before: That reminds me of the original bossa nova. Great melody, great performance; I don’t know if it was a singer and a guitarist or one person, but I have a feeling it was two people. Lots of articulation. I never play solo lines for extended times in a piece. I’m always comping along with my solo lines because I feel like the single line thing becomes naked after a while. But the way this was played was wonderful. Very natural flow. It was naked and they were going for it. It made me smile. That’s the best performance like that I’ve ever heard. They’re not trying to cover anything or cheat. It was just straight on. The vocalist was fantastic. The articulation was like crazy.
After: I know Luciana but I haven’t checked out Romero yet. Really good stuff.
8. Jim Hall & Bill Frisell
“Bag’s Groove” (from Hemispheres, Artist Share). Hall, Frisell, guitars. Recorded in 2008.
Before: That was fun. There was some really nice, subtle interplay between the two players, weaving in and out of each other. That kind of reminded me of Bill Frisell. The few times I’ve played with him, he’s always trying to interject something surprising, to make it fun or a little different, throwing in off-beat rhythms and harmonies.
After: [surprised] I’ve never heard of this record. This is cool. Jim Hall has always been one of my favorite players. I really like those things he did with Paul Desmond. He’s in a class by himself; his sound, phrasing, ideas and everything. And Bill is one of my favorite guitar players and people. He’s a hoot. I’ve got to get this.
9. Carmen McRae
“What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life” (from The Great American Songbook, Atlantic). McRae, vocal; Joe Pass, guitar. Recorded in 1972.
Before: That was Carmen McRae, right? I love Carmen. My mom had a bunch of her records so I sort of grew up on her. She has a presence and attitude that she brings to a song. Now, I didn’t know that she had ever done anything with Joe Pass. In the ’70s when he started doing all the solo work, that was great because he drew on so many sources and experiences through his career. He was a great ambassador for solo guitar playing. He influenced a lot of us, though I have to admit I never listened to guitar players to learn how to play guitar. I listened to piano players. When I heard Bill Evans in ’67 on a PBS special, I couldn’t believe the harmonies he used. I love guitar, but I went and bought everything that Bill Evans recorded. I found that harmonic approach so beautiful. Of course you can’t do all of that on a guitar, it’s impossible, but it gave me something to shoot for. I love the way that Joe accompanied Carmen. He plays finger style and he also plays with a pick. When he did his arpeggios, that gave it away.
After: I love that tune. The melody has a lot of range but your chord choices are not as wide as the melody. It’s a fairly simple song, basically A minor with a beautiful bridge. [looks at the CD] These are all great tunes.
10. Chick Corea & John McLaughlin
“Someday My Prince Will Come” (from Five Piece Band, Concord). Corea, piano; McLaughlin, guitar. Recorded in 2008.
Before: I haven’t played with him in over 30 years but that’s Chick Corea, for sure. When he plays solo he has impish things that he does, and you can identify the way that he shuffles time and rhythm. The guitar, I don’t think it’s Al Di Meola. And if it’s not Al, the only other suspect would be John McLaughlin.
After: Oh wow. That’s great. They’re both just the best players imaginable. I’ve never heard John play melodically, but I love his playing and his recordings and the different roads he’s traveled down. I especially like McLaughlin’s orchestral record with Michael Tilson Thomas. It was a step above everything else that was being done at the time.
11. Duck Baker
“Peace” (from Everything That Rises Must Converge, Mighty Quinn). Baker, guitar. Recorded in 2008.
Before: That was interesting. The counterpoint got my attention, and the dissonance kept coming but in a good way. After hearing the first go round, it made more sense to me. It’s clearly intended not to settle anywhere. And for me, it doesn’t seem to be a countable meter. There was nothing that resolved harmonically. It all stayed suspended. The attack and the sound of the guitar added to the mood. The sound helped create more tension.
After: It’s an Ornette Coleman song. That’s so cool. Free jazz guitar, That says it all. So many people are playing nylon string guitar now. It’s really great. I don’t feel so alone [laughter].
12. John Scofield
“Just a Little While To Stay Here” (from Piety Street, Emarcy). Scofield, guitar; Jon Cleary, vocal, piano, organ; George Porter, Jr., bass; Ricky Fataar, drums. Released in 2009.
Before: Guitar player has a lot of flavor. I really enjoyed that. He may be playing with a thumb pick, but it seems like there’s a lot of finger in there. It’s a really warm sound. Right in the groove, some choice notes. I love that feel. Seems like New Orleans based spiritual music. My grandmother was from New Orleans and it sounds like music I heard when I visited her.
After: Scofield! Now that’s a surprise. I wouldn’t have thought it was him. But he’s just an open-minded guy. I’ve known him since the early 70’s and he embraces all types of music. He’s really into the authenticity of this project because I’ve never heard him sound like this. Did this just come out?
13. Kazumi Watanabe
“Nardis” (from Guitar Renaissance IV, ewe). Watanabe, guitar. Recorded in 2007.
Before: That’s kind of adventurous. I know the tune, “Nardis.” He’s a plectrum player and it’s really hard to do what he does when you’re a plectrum player. He definitely has fantastic technique. If he played finger style it would be much easier [laughter]. This song doesn’t lay easily for the guitar, because of the intervals, but he’s opened up the harmony. You really have to figure it out. For me, I’d have to lay it out like a piano.
After: That’s a challenging piece and to do it that well is great.
14. Biréli Lagrène & Sylvain Luc
“Isn’t She Lovely” (from Guitar Visions, Dreyfus Jazz). Lagrène, Luc, guitars. Recorded in 1999.
Before: [chuckles] That Stevie Wonder tune has an infectious melody. They obviously had fun doing it, and I had a good time listening to it. The tune has a series of changes so the effect is that you can play endlessly on those changes. And when you’re playing off of each other it’s even more fun. It’s one of my favorite tunes like that. It feels comfortable and the technique is incredible. Playing with a pick on a nylon string guitar can be challenging.
After: I’ve heard of Sylvain Luc. Biréli is one of my favorite guitar players. His trio records are incredible. He’s one of the finest players, I think.
Name some recordings that changed your life.
All my early Chet Atkins records. They were a revelation to me. The first Wes Montgomery record I got was Tequila, that was life-changing. What else? George Benson’s Cookbook and Bill Evans Live at Montreux, where he does “I Love You Porgy.” And I can’t forget Charlie Byrd, Howard Roberts and Lenny Breau.
This B&A originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of JazzTimes.