By Charles Hallman
Earl Klugh’s 60th birthday is this coming September. As a result he is celebrating with his first solo record since 2006.
“A birthday gift to me? I didn’t think of it that way,” admits Klugh on HandPicked, his first CD release by Heads Up International. It is his third solo effort, but his first “with multiple original solo guitar pieces.” The 16-track set hit stores on July 30.
The Detroit-born Grammy-winning guitarist recently spoke with the MSR in a phone interview while in Nashville. “[It] was fun for me,” he says of the CD. “It was fun traveling around the country, catching up with my buddies to get these duets done.” He easily recalled his virtually going coast-to-coast to record “Blue Moon,” one of three duets on HandPicked.
“I live in Atlanta and Bill Frisell lives in the Northwest; I went to him,” remembers Klugh.
Klugh self-taught himself the guitar, and was discovered practicing at a Detroit music store as a teenager where he worked by legendary jazz saxophonist Yusef Lateef, who later invited the youngster to sit in a recording session, and at age 16 appeared on the saxophonist’s record, Suite 16.
After playing with George Benson and Chick Corea, Klugh’s self-titled first album in 1976 launched a musical career where 23 out of 30-plus albums made Billboard’s Top-10 Jazz list, and five reached its top spot. He won a Grammy in 1980 with pianist Bob James for Best Pop Instrumental Album (One on One), and has 12 Grammy nominations to his credit.
His music has been heard and recorded over the years by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Al Jarreau, Mary J. Blige and others, and he has played with other legendary musicians such as Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Brenda Russell, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Loggins.
Is he a jazz artist? Yes, but he also plays classical, country and pop since his musical influences range from Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery to Sergio Mendes, Burt Bacharach and the Beatles, as well as the legendary Funk Brothers, the studio session maestros at Motown Records during their heyday.
The CD title is very appropriate says Klugh who picked “songs that meant something to me through my life, or new pieces or whatever.”
The Klugh/Jake Shimabukuro duet on the Eagles’ “Hotel California” gave the original haunting and somewhat depressing version a mellow twist. “What’s really interesting about the song is when we recorded it, then we came back and listened to it, it timed out at about eight minutes. What we ended up doing was editing it down for radio play,” he explains.
However, the album version remains at its original length. “It was one of my mom’s favorite songs, and Jake liked it as well,” adds Klugh. “It is really a stretch — an acoustic guitar and a ukulele — but it came out just great.”
Vince Guaraldi’s evergreen classic “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” has been recorded by Benson, Quincy Jones, and Klugh as well (Magic In Your Eyes, 1978), but this time as a solo. “There are some songs that are just perfect, and that is one of them,” believes Klugh. “It’s a fairly short song but it has everything in it, and it’s a nice song for jazz because it has a melody, the bridge and the whole thing. You can take it anywhere you want to go. It’s one of my all-time favorites.”
The Beatles’ “If I Fell” “is one of my all-time favorite songs,” says the guitarist. “Paul McCartney had to have written the song on a guitar. It really fits the guitar. I had to do that one — a perfect song. I’m really happy with the recording. It was a lot of fun.”
Detroit never got its due for being a musical melting pot. The Motor City is more than just Motown — it’s also an unheralded jazz paradise.
“Growing up in Detroit at that time, it was a different thing,” admits Klugh, who as a teenager often hung out at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, a local jazz club famous for its piano-shaped bar. “It was a club I grew up in. There was so much [jazz] — you would never know who [would] walk through the door. [It] was key to my development.”
Although he is often compared to Benson, I think Klugh’s style is more in tuned to Grant Green (1935-1979). “I have a great admiration for both players,” he points out. “They were both huge influences on me.”
Klugh has played the world over, but his biggest thrill to date is when he was asked to play at the White House for former President George W. Bush.
Still looking youthful as he nears three-score, “We’re finding new places to go and things to do,” says Klugh. “I’m still writing most of my music on my guitar. I’m still having a good time.”
However, the dearth of jazz stations nationwide makes it difficult to find his music on the radio these days, but Klugh won’t complain.
“Things are different but I think that jazz music or American music in general, is always going to be unique and special,” he notes, adding that playing with Vince Gill on his latest album “brings jazz into the forefront. I’m trying with all I have to keep everything going, and make people aware of the music.
“If you can make them aware of the music, then they will listen to it,” Klugh concludes.
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