Jazz & Blues

Music producer Larry Klein still at the top of his game

Joni Mitchell's ex-husband has worked with the singer and with a roster of names including Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Melody Gardot, Tracy Chapman and Kyle Eastwood

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2015, 5:45pm

Record producers, for the most part, are only at the top of their game commercially for a short time. One day you're hot, the next you're not.

Larry Klein is a rare exception to this rule. For more than 20 years, the albums he has overseen have enjoyed both critical acclaim and healthy sales. Klein made the leap from journeyman bass player to greatly sought-after record producer while married to Joni Mitchell, and picked up his first Grammy in 1995 for co-producing her Turbulent Indigo album.

They were divorced by the time it was completed, but their professional relationship continued, and he went on to win more Grammys for his ex-wife's orchestral album, Both Sides Now, and Herbie Hancock's tribute to her, River: The Joni Letters.

Klein does not work exclusively with female singers - apart from Hancock he has also produced albums for Walter Becker, Till Bronner, Kyle Eastwood and Zachary Richard, among many others - but he is known for producing them particularly well, and his client list includes Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman, and Melody Gardot, for whom he produced 2009's My One and Only Thrill - a global hit which received three Grammy nominations and has to date sold about 1.5 million copies.

For the follow-up, 2012's The Absence, another producer, Heitor Pereira was engaged, and it sold well, but not quite as well. So for her latest, Currency of Man, Klein, not surprisingly, has been re-engaged.

To her credit, Gardot has not tried to repeat the My One and Only Thrill formula, which would have involved calling in Vince Mendoza - also the arranger on Both Sides Now - to orchestrate the album. Although strings and horns are present, they are arranged by Clément Ducol and Jerry Hey respectively, and to very different effect.

"We have a slamming horn section and these cinematic and somewhat existential arrangements," says Gardot. "It's a body of work where Larry and I discover an electric side of the songs, something I've never done before. It's all an exploration, but it feels good to have something new, and even a bit strange. Every album is a journey and this disc in some ways is a leap into the unknown."

Gardot's music to date has combined elements of jazz, cabaret and even a touch of fado, but there's a greater bluesiness here than has been present previously, and some of Klein's production wouldn't sound out of place on a Tom Waits album.

There are a few more rough edges, even though Currency Of Man features musicians as polished as Larry Goldings on organ, Dean Parks on guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, all of whom have worked with her and Klein previously.

Gardot herself contributes more guitar playing than on previous albums, and also plays some piano, as well as having written all the songs, some of which take her into the jazz protest area, particularly notably Preacherman, which concerns the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.

"It talks about his life, but more importantly it centres on the idea that racism is not dead. Sixty years ago he died, the same way that Trayvon Martin died - for nothing - and to put it plainly, I'm tired of it. The lyrics recount this young boy's story, as it deserves to be told and remembered, but more importantly the song also begs the question 'How many times do we have to repeat ourselves before we learn from our mistakes?'"

Having started out as a lyricist looking inward, Gardot has started writing more about individuals other than herself, and like each of her previous albums this one reflects a commendable willingness to try something different, both musically and lyrically.

According to Gardot the songs are "reactions to the world as I've seen it now. There isn't a love song amongst them. Why? Because this isn't about love selfish, love blind, it's about loving the world so much that you feel sick when you see the hardships that people endure."

Take Three

A trio of other noteworthy albums produced by Larry Klein.

Our Bright Future (2008, Elektra): Klein assembled a hot band of jazz and jazz rock players to back Tracy Chapman on a record nominated for a Grammy as best contemporary folk album. Sidemen include Larry Goldings on keyboards and Steve Gadd on drums. Klein himself plays bass.

Circus Money (2008, Mailboat): Klein produces Walter Becker on an album which features musicians who have played with Steely Dan at various times in their history, on arrangements with a surprisingly strong reggae influence. Becker goes back to playing bass as well as guitar.

Travelogue (2002, Nonesuch): Klein takes ex-wife Joni Mitchell back to jazz with more Vince Mendoza arrangements, and the help of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Plas Johnson and Kenny Wheeler, among others. He handles the bass parts himself.