Jazz man happy as Larry
Even if you're not a fan of jazz or don't recognise Larry Carlton's name, chances are you've heard him play.
That's because the four-time Grammy Award-winning American guitarist has played on big-selling albums – and the theme to the popular television drama Hill Street Blues. And it's not just simply being a session man. Carlton's distinctive playing style, usually on his signature Gibson ES-335 guitar, has been essential to the music.
One of the best known is Michael Jackson's She's Out of My Life, from Off the Wall in 1979, both produced by Quincy Jones. But Carlton, who for a time was doing session work up to 500 times a year, says it was a fluke. "When Quincy was doing Off the Wall I had already discontinued doing session work. Tom Bahler, who works with [Jones], wrote the song. Tom called personally. He said, 'Larry, we've got this one tune for Michael and Quincy and we both looked at each other and said it's gotta be Carlton'.
"So I went in and did She's Out of My Life – and that's the only tune I played on the album."
Elsewhere, Carlton's played across whole albums. It's him on guitar on Joni Mitchell's acclaimed 1973 release Court and Spark, when Mitchell was moving away from folk roots to rock and jazz.
Among the many other artists he's worked with are Sammy Davis Jr, Paul Anka, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Carole King, Dolly Parton, Billy Joel and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia.
Talk of Garcia reminds Carlton that at one point he was playing on so many albums, he'd have to be reminded what he'd played on.
"The [Garcia] album was in the can and unreleased for I don't know how long. So when it came out and I was doing interviews people would say, 'you're on the Jerry Garcia album' – and I had no idea. It was too long ago.
"There are songs that are still surfacing that I've forgotten that I've played on. I go, 'wow! I did play that'."
In 1976, Carlton also made what's now considered a historic contribution to popular music: Steely Dan's 1976 funk and jazz-fused Kid Charlemagne. His guitar solo is ranked at No 80 in Rolling Stone magazine's 100 greatest guitar songs.
Carlton, who has played on recent Steely Dan tours, doesn't take the kudos for granted. "You can't plan on magic – and when it happens you've got to stand back and say, 'I'm sure glad I was along for that ride'. I'm very proud of the stuff I did with them.
"Their music is so sophisticated harmonically, but still available for the general public. We all realised back then, because [while] I had such a strong harmonic jazz background I could still play with a rock'n'roll sound. It was a really good mix. They could write their hard chords and I could play over them."
Carlton, 66, says over the years he keeps getting asked if he sees himself as a jazz guitarist or a guitarist who happens to play jazz. "I usually say I'm a jazz-influenced guitar player."
It's also been the foundation for him becoming a musician. He started playing guitar at the age of six, took to jazz at high school and while influenced by guitarists including BB King and Joe Pass, was also inspired by saxophonist John Coltrane.
"I discovered jazz in my teens and it touched me. It was challenging and fun to learn [with] big chords. I was inspired when I heard it, so I went for it."
In 1971, for five years Carlton played with jazz funk band The Crusaders, while also juggling session work.
"In the beginning I was a servant. It was not about me. It was about the artist and the producer and the other players. That approach is really good. You come in wanting to give. But as my sound became more established and I sounded like Larry Carlton, they'd want me to do whatever it was I wanted to do on that song that day."
In 1978 he released his first solo album, Room 335. It was named after Carlton's recording studio – which he had built from his income as a session player. It was also the site of a near-tragedy in 1988, when Carlton stepped outside and was shot in the neck in a random gang shooting.
Carlton thought he was going to die. His left vocal chord was destroyed and nerves from his shoulder to his left arm were damaged.
But after surgery and rehabilitation Carlton believes he is better than ever. "I had people tell me that I was a different player after the shooting. I didn't know it, but they said it sounded different," he said in 2012.
He still managed to release Solid Ground, the album he was working on shortly after and carried on. He continues to work on solo recordings, collaborations and the likes of his quartet, which he's bringing to the Wellington Jazz Festival.
But Carlton says it's unlikely he'll return to the days of 500 sessions a year. "It was three sessions a day, 15 or 16 a week. It was a lot of studio."
Larry Carlton Quartet performs at Wellington's Opera House on June 7, 6pm and Auckland June 6. Find details here.
For the full June 5-8 Wellington Jazz Festival programme go to jazzfestival.co.nz.
The Dominion Post