Three-time Grammy-winning guitarist Larry Carlton talks about the early influences and the reason he started on a solo career
Larry Carlton is as jazz as jazz can get. He was there when jazz began taking the form that now serves as reference point for present musicians. The 62-year-old, in the Capital recently to perform at the 100 Pipers Jazz Utsav, has three Grammys under his belt — for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for his version of Michael McDonald's single “Minute by Minute”, for the soundtrack of TV series Hill Street Blues, and one for Best Pop Instrumental Album with Steve Lukather for “No Substitutions: Live in Osaka”. And here, we're not counting the nominations. (A few days before this interview, Carlton got a phone call informing him that his album with Japanese guitarist Tak Matsumoto, “Take Your Pick”, has earned a nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album.) With a Gibson ES-335, the guitarist-vocalist has strummed his way through three decades.
Ask him if he treats the Grammys with an ‘Oh! another one' resignation or as an event to celebrate, he says, “The Grammy nominations obviously are always an honour. So it's always a thrill. It's interesting that two of the three Grammys that I have won have been collaborations. So I'm hoping that the one with Tak will be the same. We'd love to win it, of course. We're honoured to be nominated.”
Growing up in Southern California, it was after listening to greatslike Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, B.B. King and John Coltrane that Carlton developed a love for jazz. “I was so young that I started listening to them,” he recalls. “All of us were learning things as teenagers. We were very open, we were like a sponge. Each one of those artistes had such an influence on me because I was so into their music that I would spend a lot of time practising to it, listening to it and being inspired by it.”
There is probably hardly any genre that is as tolerant as jazz and ready for co-existence and fusion. For about five years, Carlton himself was once a part of the jazz rock group The Crusaders. What makes jazz so inclusive? “Probably the improvisational part of jazz is what makes it so open to interacting with other musicians. That's the fun part of jazz, that you're creating on the spot, and to do that with other musicians with the same mindset is very, very exciting,” says Carlton.
When Carlton chose to embark on a solo career in the late '70s, it wasn't a question of taking a shot at fame and success from obscurity. As a guitarist, Carlton was one of the most in-demand studio musicians of the time — in a decade he had worked with Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones, Bobby Bland and Dolly Parton among others. Why take a risk when it wasn't necessary?
Carlton explains, “I was so busy doing sessions from 1970 to 1977 that I actually got burned out. I was averaging about 500 three-hour sessions a year. I really enjoyed contributing to those records and also playing with some of the best musicians in the world. But I decided I had enough of doing that, so I just told everybody I was going to stop doing sessions as a guitar player and start producing some records. And I started going back out and playing live, like I had when I was a teenager.”
One night, while playing at a local jazz club, an executive from a record company came up and asked him if he'd like to make a record. Thus started the solo career of Larry Carlton.
This January will see the release of the album “Larry Carlton Plays the Sound of Philadelphia”, featuring the instrumental versions of 11 songs written by songwriters Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff.
What does he have to say about the younger lot of jazz musicians? With his master's status, does he sit back and think of what they can do better and what they have done so far?
“I don't give it much thought… I think jazz will stay healthy as long as it continues to grow, maintains its core roots from the 1950s and the '60s.”