Going it alone with an inventive take on the music he loves 

By Jeff Tamarkin

Earl Klugh has worked in many formats in more than four decades, playing in duos, trios, even with orchestras, but he always returns to the solo album. Alone with his acoustic guitar is how the jazz master feels he can best express himself. “There’s a definite focus on the instrument itself,” he says. “I’ve adapted my playing so that I play bass, chords and melody, in that order. I enjoy a challenge, and it’s a real challenge when you play contrapuntal stuff. But I’m one of those players who wants to hear the whole guitar.”

Klugh showcases his solo skills on his latest effort, HandPicked, save for appearances from three high-profile guests: Bill Frisell, Vince Gill and Jake Shimabukuro. Klugh takes on material as diverse as the Beatles’ “If I Fell,” Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” as well as four of his own new compositions. Klugh brings his distinctive clear-as-a-bell tone, dynamic touch and keen sense of arrangement to each number, still fine-tuning the holistic approach that he traces back to his teens, when he got his start accompanying jazz pros like saxophonist Yusef Lateef and guitarist George Benson. “I love the emotions music evokes, and the stories it tells,” says Klugh, 60. “No matter the genre or style, I can always find something to enjoy.”

Klugh has since recorded more than 30 albums, including 23 Top 10s—with five landing in the top spot on Billboard’s Jazz Album chart. He’s also earned 12 Grammy nominations, and a win for 1979’s platinum-selling breakout album One on One with Bob James. The Detroit native is always busy on the road, including special events such as when Eric Clapton taps him—as he has three times so far—for his Crossroads Guitar Festival, or when Klugh takes on hosting duties each November for the popular Weekend of Jazz event on South Carolina’s Kiawah Island.


Feel like a one-man band playing solo?

That’s exactly it. I started doing that after I graduated high school, while I was playing in lounges and clubs around Detroit. During my earlier years I got a Bill Evans album, and that really opened my eyes. I said, “He’s doing pretty much the same thing I’m doing except on piano.” I had a chance before he died to have a conversation with him.


How do you transpose to guitar?

In my mind I visualize it as left hand and right hand. Of course it’s really not that, but it’s what I’m trying to do. It’s interesting to me because there are not that many notes there at all. I only have a six-note instrument, but when I started listening to Bill Evans, he wasn’t playing much more than six notes at any given time—probably less. If you understand the harmony of the song, it will sound like more—you’ll have a bass note or two, high notes, and you can create a lot more than you think. After I got into that mode, it took me several years before I felt comfortable with what I was doing. Sometimes it gets a little complicated.


How do you arrange cover songs? 

I never know going in how I’m going to play it. I just try to remember how the original recorded song went, how they broke it down. Sometimes I’ll follow that path, and sometimes I’ll change it completely. There are some songs I really enjoy, and want to come up with interesting arrangements. So I start with the actual tune and start modifying it. Then I figure out whether it’s going to be a standard delivery of a piece or if I’m going to take liberties in the melody. Some songs I strip down all the way, like “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” But it works by itself because the melody is so gorgeous. To me, it’s more challenging to do an arrangement of someone else’s song.


Why play nylon-string acoustic guitars?

I always liked the sound of the classical guitar. I know it sounds silly now but years ago the first guitar music I ever heard was on Bonanza—not the theme music but the Spanish guitar. I looked at that and said, “This is something different.”


Chet Atkins was your main influence.

When I first heard Chet’s records it was eye-opening. Chet was an artist who was very versatile, and an amazing player. He was really fun to watch and learn from. I must have bought a dozen Chet Atkins albums over the summer one year, and I’d stay in the house and practice. I was only a fair student in school so I figured I’d better find something to excel at. When I met Chet he was amazed that I was playing a nylon-string guitar exclusively—but he encouraged me in that direction. He said, “That’s your instrument.” And he was right. Chet was always guarded about what he would say, but when we’d get together, I always learned something from him.


What’d you learn from George Benson?

We were on the road for real. We had a drum kit in the back seat, an electric bass, a keyboard and guitars—all in the car. We were playing small but nice places. It was a whole different era back then—I’m talking about the early 1970s. I learned a lot during those years, mainly things outside of music. After 1973, I left George’s band and started playing with [pianist] George Shearing. His guitar player fell out, and I showed up with my nylon-string. George [who was blind] was listening to me and said, “Earl, what is that you’re playing?” I said, “It’s a guitar.” He said, “What kind of guitar?” I said, “It’s a classical guitar.” He said, “Oh, really. Well, keep playing.”


How’d you develop your own style?

I started really dissecting the guitar, trying to emulate Bill Evans with my bass notes and my clusters. Over time you get very comfortable and try to find different ways to play the same thing, and that is sometimes a lesson by itself. I’d play a song and say, “That sounds good. Now let me play it another way. Now let me play it in this key.” I would spend hour after hour doing that. You have to be pretty devoted. I think I found my sound by the time I did my [1978’s] Finger Paintings, and then [1979’s] Heart String was the one that really took off. I started making a career for myself.


How did One on One come about?

I was opening for Bob James for about three weeks, and after a couple of nights we got done early and were hanging out. Bob had the idea of playing some songs together. That’s how it happened. He was playing some of my songs and I was playing some of his.


Which album is special to you?

I did an album some years ago with the London Philharmonic [Sounds and Visions, 1993]—just trio and guitar. That was something that I’d always wanted to do. I don’t know what I was thinking except that I wanted to do something that was far away from what I had been doing.


Tell us about the Crossroads Festivals.

I go all the way back with Eric to the mid-’80s. I had my band in Japan and we were checking in at the hotel, and this guy was looking at me and says, “Are you Earl Klugh?” I said, “Yeah, and I know you’re Eric Clapton.” He came to our shows several times, and we had a chance to sit in a few times. He’s a great guy.

What do fans not know?

Oh, boy. After I was with George Benson, I got a call from Chick Corea, and played in Chick’s band for about six months. Most people don’t know this. That was a whole other box of cookies. I had my nylon-string guitar with a very bad pickup—there weren’t any good pickups—and I was dealing with feedback. But touring with Chick was a good experience—one of those things that happens in your lifetime you never expect.


Who do you want to collaborate with?

Just about anybody who’s fun and great. What I’m really looking for now is a way to find new avenues, to put different genres together. I don’t go off the edge and say I’m going to play Indian music for the rest of my life, but I want to work with musicians I enjoy and have listened to over the years.


comment closed

Copyright © 2014 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·