Blue Notes: Earl Klugh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 5:34pm

There can't be many musicians who would be equally comfortable playing a duet with either Kenny G or Bill Frisell, but Earl Klugh is one of them.

He is one of the few nylon string fingerstyle guitarists to have successfully found a niche in jazz - Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida are perhaps the most notable other examples - but Klugh's main inspiration was Chet Atkins.

The Detroit-born guitarist made his recorded debut in 1970 with Yusef Lateef, going on to join George Benson's band, before embarking on a solo career which to date has produced more than 30 albums and numerous guest appearances on other artists' recordings.

The interesting thing about Klugh is that at the same time as appealing to a large audience which thinks of his music as easy listening, he still commands the respect of players with heavyweight jazz credentials, such as Frisell and Martin Taylor, who recognise the intelligent economy and emotional integrity of his playing.

Clips of Taylor and Klugh playing and in conversation can be found on YouTube, and Frisell is a guest on Klugh's latest album, Handpicked, performing a duet on Blue Moon.

Klugh's distinctively funky acoustic finger picking and Frisell's spacier electric guitar complement each other perfectly, and there are two other interesting duets.

Virtuoso ukelelist Jake Shimabukuro, who appeared in Hong Kong recently and is expected to be back next year, guests on a version of The Eagles' standard Hotel California, and country guitarist and singer Vince Gill appears with him on a version of the Everly Brothers' All I Have to Do is Dream.

The pairing with Shimabukuro makes particularly good sense. The two mellow-toned nylon-stringed instruments blend harmoniously and provide tonal contrasts, as the two players swap the soloist and accompanist roles back and forth.

"Earl has always been a huge inspiration to me," Shimabukuro says. "He makes everything sound so beautiful. His tone is rich and pure, and his melodic phrasing is absolutely perfect."

Klugh has appeared with Gill before, at Eric Clapton's 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, appearing in a line-up which also included James Burton, Albert Lee and Keb' Mo'. Gill is likewise a fan. "I've always believed and found it to be true that most musicians play like their personalities. And I discovered that to be true of Earl. He played the guitar gracefully and kind, and that's how I found him to be as a person as well," he says.

The original recording of All I Have to Do is Dream featured Klugh's great inspiration Atkins on guitar, and the two became friends and occasional collaborators. "Earl can wail with the best," Atkins once said in an interview with Guitar Player, "but he prefers to touch people emotionally."

Klugh recorded the album to mark his 60th birthday, which falls on September 16, and it covers much of the range of his musical interests. "Everything has its place. The fun of it is that you are not in a box. Music has no boundaries," he says.

Perhaps, but the tracks that will probably appeal most to the jazz audience are his solo interpretations of standards, including Vince Guaraldi's Cast Your Fate to the Wind, Thelonius Monk's 'Round Midnight, Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen's But Beautiful, and George Shearing's Lullaby of Birdland. A fitting end to the album is Klugh's solo version of This Time, a tune he originally recorded for his 1977 album Finger Paintings, of which he says: "I have had a lot of luck with this song."

Al Jarreau liked it enough to add lyrics to it, and the tune became the title track for a bestselling 1980 album by the singer.

This collection should appeal more than some of his more heavily produced albums to people who enjoy the jazzier aspects of Klugh's playing. Not a bad way to celebrate a landmark birthday.

Take Three

Three other noteworthy albums featuring Klugh's guitar playing.

  • One on One
  • (1979, Tappan Zee Records): the first of three collaborative efforts featuring Klugh and keyboardist Bob James. This one won a Grammy in 1981 for best pop instrumental performance.
  • Stay Tuned
  • (1985, Columbia): Klugh joins an all-star cast of guitarists assembled to pay tribute to Atkins on his debut release for the Columbia label. Others include old sparring partner George Benson, Larry Carlton, Dean Parks and Mark Knopfler.
  • Naked Guitar
  • (2005, Koch Records): just Klugh and his guitar, playing unaccompanied versions of 14 tunes including one of his own contributions to the standards songbook, Angelina.