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Since 1971, when his sweetly tantalizing bent-string lick on the Crusaders’ hit “Put It Where You Want It” first embedded itself on our collective consciousness, guitarist Larry Carlton has possessed the most delicious and instantly identifiable finger vibrato in the business. Since then, Carlton has placed his signature singing tone in a variety of settings, from pop-jazz (his Wes Montgomery-inspired 1968 debut, With a Little Help From My Friends) to scintillating fusion (1978’s self-titled crossover gem) to horn-driven roadhouse blues (2003’s Sapphire Blue), blistering rock (2006’s Fire Wire, produced by Csaba Petocz, who presided over albums by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent and Metallica) and consummate smooth jazz (2021’s Soul Searchin’ with fellow guitarist Paul Brown).
He hit a commercial career high with 1986’s mellow, Grammy-winning, all-acoustic offering, Alone/But Never Alone and followed in that vein with 1987’s Discovery, both albums helping to launch “The Wave,” “Quiet Storm” and “NAC” (New Adult Contemporary) radio formats, all precursors to the smooth jazz radio format which predominated during the mid 1990s. After replacing Lee Ritenour in the smooth jazz superband Fourplay in 1997, Carlton rode that successful formula through eight albums with the group, including best-sellers like 1998’s 4, 2000’s Yes, Please, 2002’s Heartfelt and 2008’s Energy. Carlton did manage to emerge every so often during his successful smooth jazz phase to stretch and blow with pent-up abandon, as on his 1986 live date Last Nite, Stanley Clarke’s 1993 recording Live at the Greek and the guitarist’s live-in-Osaka collaboration with fellow axman Steve Lukather on 1998’s No Substitutions for guitar hero Steve Vai’s chops-conscious Favored Nations label.
A ubiquitous L.A. studio session musician through the ’70s and ’80s, Carlton put his distinctive stamp on thousands of recordings, most famously Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho; as well as Mike Post’s 1981 “Theme From Hill Street Blues” and Donald Fagen’s platinum-selling 1982 album, The Nightfly. Add to his endless list of credits sessions with Barbra Streisand, The Four Tops, The Fifth Dimension, Joan Baez, Art Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Billy Joel, Herb Alpert, Al Jarreau, The Brothers Johnson, John Klemmer, Lou Rawls and Chuck Mangione, and chances are, that if you were living anywhere in America during the past 50 years, you heard Larry Carlton somewhere.
And now comes the announcement that Mr. 335 — the nickname he acquired from his trusty ax, a warm-toned 1969 Gibson ES-335 semi hollow body guitar — is hanging it up. That is, he’ll no longer be hitting the road, bringing his signature tones and urgent lines to faithful fans from coast to coast and beyond. Currently in the midst of what is being billed as his “Farewell Tour,” Carlton discussed his celebrated past and his plans for the future during a phone interview with JAZZIZ in January.
Bill Milkowski: I grew up seeing you in concert with The Crusaders but didn’t really meet you until 1986 for the record company rollout of the MCA Master Series. I flew down to Nashville to meet and interview the artists they were showcasing — Edgar Meyer, John Jarvis, Jerry Douglas and yourself. You were debuting Alone/But Never Alone at the time.
Larry Carlton: Yeah, I remember that evening. That was cool.
It was my first and only trip to Nashville. I understand you live there now?
Yes, I moved to the Nashville area in 1995. My kids from my first marriage ... my wife had remarried a gentleman in this area and I wanted to be near the kids, of course. So six months later, I was in the Nashville area.
And one of those kids was Travis, the bass player who now plays with Scott Henderson?
Yeah, my son Travis. Yeah, he’s a bad boy. He’s got the gift, man. He knows how to make music. Yeah, I’m proud of him. He just got a call to go out with Steve Gadd next month. I’m real excited for him.
Meanwhile, this is your farewell tour.
Well, yeah. You know, I’m really blessed to be in really good health at my age. I’ll be 74 on March 1. So starting in 2024 we’re going to cut my touring schedule down to just very specific dates. Obviously, the pandemic has affected all of us as far as touring over the last two years. We canceled a lot of concerts, but we did all the make-up dates. We were lucky when things opened up again for touring. So I’m going to continue my normal schedule for the rest of this year and next year. But after that, we’re going to continue to cut way back and just take specific dates that are interesting to me. And I’m just going to groove with the family and enjoy my good health and be available for whatever special projects that might come up and would be cool to do. It’s just a personal choice at this time of life.
Elton John made the same choice recently. He’s currently on his own farewell tour, and he’s also 74 years old. He’s said in interviews that his two kids are growing up, and that as much as he loves music and has all his life, he wants to be with his family.
And my situation here is unique. My daughter and her kids, we all live together. And four years ago, my mother, who just turned 99 at Christmas, moved in with us. So there’s four generations of Carltons living in my house outside of Nashville, and we’re all grooving. And I just really want to enjoy that time with them all. But I won’t stop playing. So “Farewell Tour” is a funny term, isn’t it? For me, it really just means not touring around the world like I used to, two times a year, jumping from country to country in Europe. We just won’t take those kind of intense dates anymore. We’ll keep it down to probably 20 or 30 bookings a year, starting in 2024.
Will you be playing some of your signature songs on this Farewell Tour?
Definitely. About three or four years ago, I put together a show specifically for my Japan tour, and since then it’s just become a thing that people have enjoyed seeing me where I’m remembering The Crusaders and playing my famous solos from Steely Dan. People just love coming to those shows, and I tell stories about how I met the guys. So that’s been really fun.
At those gigs, do you also play any of the Joni Mitchell stuff?
Not yet. It’s been suggested. I’m going to have to really find the right way to do that without a vocalist. The Steely Dan tunes come off great as instrumentals. And since it’s combined with The Crusaders stuff, I’m carrying trombone and tenor sax on this tour, so we get that Crusaders sound but we can also then distribute the melodies that are interesting on the Steely Dan tunes. And then of course, I do the stuff from my book the audience expects to hear, tunes like “Smiles and Smiles to Go” [from Alone/But Never Alone] and “Room 335” [from Larry Carlton].
The last record you put out, with Paul Brown (2021’s Soul Searchin’) was really marketed as smooth jazz, but I was hearing a deep blue, funky vibe on tracks like “Truckin’ On,” the shuffle “Gone Fishin’” and the very earthy “Stomp,” which sounded like a Crusaders tune.
Exactly. Paul’s a great player and we struck a nice chemistry on that record. He produced a couple of my records a while back — Fingerprints  and Deep Into It . And although we did have some very bluesy tunes on Soul Searchin’, we had great success in the smooth jazz market with it. I really hadn’t done anything for that market or for the radio in well over a decade, if not more. And working with Paul was just great. He’s a total pro producer. Basically, we just decided, “Hey, man, the pandemic’s got us stuck at home. So let’s do this!” And that’s how it came about. We probably would not have had time to put it together had it not been for the pandemic.
So it was all done remotely?
It was. My parts were all done remotely. We did everything else out in L.A. And I think it came out great. It’s hard to tell that we weren’t recording in the same room together.
Talk about your signature string bending quality, which you hear on “Stomp” and so many other tunes over your career, going back to “Put It Where You Want It.”
I don’t know. It just sounds like me. That’s what Jaco Pastorius used to say. People used to ask him what effects pedal could they use to emulate his sound and his answer was, “It’s in your hands, man!” Yeah, for sure.
That warm tone is something that you’ve also been identified with for so long. Of course, the Gibson ES-335 is part of that. But I understand you have a new company that you’re associated with.
Yeah, I was approached a couple of years ago by a guitar and bass manufacturer named Sire. They make the Marcus Miller bass, which has been very, very successful for them for almost 10 years now. So they came up with a guitar line done to my specs of what I would want, and they flew out from Korea and presented me with these guitars and said, “Here’s the start of what we would like to see the Larry Carlton line be.” The quality was just great, and I got excited because the price point is $600. That means a lot of guys out there that can’t afford the big manufacturer guitars because they want quality — and these guitars have that — but they can’t afford it, 600 bucks and you’ve got a quality instrument, and it crosses all the lines. There’s Les Paul models, Telecaster models, of course the Larry Carlton 335 model. I’ve been with them a little over a year now and at this point, even with the pandemic, we’re doing about 1,200 guitars a month around the world. So I’m thrilled to be able to offer that guitar to players that need a quality instrument they can afford. That was the whole motivation.
But now people are going to buy the guitar and say, “Wait a minute! How come I don’t sound like Larry Carlton?”
I did the same thing when I was a kid, man. I went to hear Joe Pass one night at Dante’s in North Hollywood, and after that my parents bought a Gibson 175 for me, just like he played. But when I pulled out my 175 to play it, I didn’t sound like Joe Pass. I sounded just like Larry Carlton at 17 years old.
I understand that Barney Kessel was also a big guitar inspiration for you early on.
He was. I started listening to jazz guitar players when I was 14 and somehow I got turned on to Barney, probably through KBCA, the jazz radio station in L.A. at the time. And so I bought Barney’s record Kessel Plays Standards [Contemporary, 1954] and sat in my bedroom and copped licks off it. That’s before I heard Joe Pass. When I reflect on it now, Barney’s a much simpler player than Joe. But it was a great education for me as a young guy to sit and cop stuff off of that record. And Barney always played an improvised solo guitar intro to each tune, so I got a lot of good guitar input by studying those records when I was young.
Joe Pass came later for you?
Yeah, I actually took two lessons from Joe when I was 17 and 18 years old. Then later, when I was in college at Long Beach State, Joe actually called me up and said, “I’m going to leave the George Shearing Quintet and I was wondering if you’d like to audition for it.” What a thrill for me! But I couldn’t do it because I had to stay in school because of the Vietnam draft lottery. So I did not go to the audition, but I was honored that Joe had remembered this kid who he thought played pretty good. And from there, word was getting out, I guess, that “this guy plays pretty good.” So as soon as I had an exemption from the draft, I never went back to school and just got busy. My name was on the list of “Hey, call this guy.” So I slowly got exposed to the studio scene.
And some 3,000 records later ...
(Laughs) Yeah, it worked out great for me.
Didn’t Barney Kessel play on some Beach Boys tunes without being really credited? Or maybe it was Glen Campbell.
No, it was both of those guys. Back in that day, especially the way Phil Spector was producing, there were four guitars on every session. All those guys were there to create that wall of sound by just strumming along. No guitar solos, really, on a lot of those records. But guitarists were there just filling that sound because they were qualified.
Your playing on the Joni Mitchell stuff, particularly The Hissing of Summer Lawns, seemed very free form in a sense. Were you improvising throughout that session?
Oh, yeah. After we did Joni’s Court and Spark album, she really responded to my instincts. So she would just let me play. When I came into the studio to do Hejira, it was just Joni’s acoustic guitar and her vocal, and she said, “Go react to the music.” So I would do three passes of just instincts, and then we’d go to the next tune and I would just play, reacting to the music. Then she would later edit and pick out all the parts that she loved. But it was that free. On the first night I did that in the studio with her, when I was leaving, Jaco was coming in to play. So Jaco and I didn’t play together on that album.
Going back to your signature playing on “Put it Where You Want It,” it’s incredible that it’s been 50 years since that Crusaders record was released.
Exactly. And so much of that music back in the day has had such a long life. It just became so credible, you know?
There are so many highlights throughout your career. One album in your extensive discography that jumps out at me is 1983’s Friends. And the reason is “Blues for T.J.,” where you follow B.B. King’s solo. That is a hard act to follow, and you killed it!
Well, thank you. I had an idea for that session since I knew B.B. was coming in. And it didn’t work at all. Initially, I wanted to do the Freddie King song “Hideaway.” Anyway, we ran it down a couple of times and recorded it. Then we went into the booth to listen back and I immediately knew it wasn’t happening, and everybody knew it wasn’t happening. And so it was B.B. who said, “Why don’t we just play a blues?” So we went back out in the studio and decided we’d play in the key of C. And with no count off or anything, tape was rolling, Joe Sample just started that intro, totally improv. And we had it in one take.
Obviously, B.B. was a role model for you in terms of the whole string bending/hand vibrato thing that you put your personal stamp on.
Yup. I mean, anybody who bends a string is sort of paying homage to B.B.
Another record that I loved is Last Nite, which was recorded live at the Baked Potato, where you stretch out with your band on “So What” and “All Blues.” That was really kind of a different side of you at the time.
It was an interesting time. That was 1986, right after Alone/But Not Alone, which was becoming very successful. MCA signed me to a 13-album deal, and part of that deal was I said, “I want to do a live album.” And they said, “Sure, go ahead.” I had been listening to a lot of Coltrane and Miles at the time and just showed up at the Baked Potato with The A-Team [keyboardist Terry Trotter, bassist Abraham Laboriel, drummer John Robinson and percussionist Alex Acuña] to blow on a set. And MCA let me do it because they had just signed me for all these projects because of my success. So, yeah, I love that album. The guys sound great.
What can you tell us about your famous solo on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne”?
Well, it was just a couple of takes with one edit in the middle. Funny story: I got a call some years back from Steely Dan wondering if I would come guest with them for eight shows. Of course I said yes. At that time, I had not played Steely Dan Music in 35 years and I knew we’d play “Kid Charlemagne,” which is the tune that had a major impact on my career. So I confided in a few friends and family, “Do I play it the way I play now, 35 years later, or do I go back and learn the solo and play it note for note?” And they all said, “Play the original solo.” So I went back and learned my own solo from “Kid Charlemagne.” And the audience, of course, they all know that solo. So as soon as I played it, they went nuts. It was really, really fun. So now on my Farewell Tour, I attempt to play the original solo every time. And I tell this story.
So while you are phasing out touring, will you continue to record? Do you still have a home studio, your famous Room 335?
Now it’s just a Pro Tools room where I do guitars. It’s not the whole big thing with a drum set up and all that. But yeah, any projects down the road that I hear about or think about that I might be interested in, I will pursue.