Larry Carlton returns to Hong Kong with his legendary jazz solos

In his sixth decade as a gun for hire, guitairst Larry Carlton has lost none of his firepower, writes Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 11:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 11:26pm

GUITARIST LARRY CARLTON has been nominated for 19 Grammys and won four, he has featured on more than 100 gold albums, and recorded with artists ranging from Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson.

His performance on Steely Dan's Kid Charlemagne from their 1976 album The Royal Scam won it a place at Number 80 in Rolling Stone magazine's 2008 list of the 100 greatest guitar songs of all time.

That fiery yet intricate performance, like many of Carlton's solos, sounds carefully worked out, but, he says, simply came to him in the moment. "I can humbly say I've never worked out a solo in advance. It's always improvised. It's just the way I think - lyrically but playing it on the guitar," he says.

Carlton will be 66 in March, but at a time when he might be expected to be taking things easy, he seems busier than ever.

A former member of The Crusaders, Carlton quit Fourplay, his second hit-making instrumental group, in 2010 because his busy schedule could no longer accommodate the band.

"My management team tries to look ahead one or two years," he says.

"I was actually interrupting what they might want to do because I was booked so far ahead. It was the right thing for me to leave so they could do the work they wanted to do, and my schedule would not interfere. But we left the best of friends, I'm happy to say."

Fortunately Carlton's forward planning did allow him to commit to performing as one of the artists in the 2014 Jazz World Live Series in Hong Kong.

He has played here a number of times over the years, most recently at City Hall with Fourplay in 2006. On February 16 he returns to the AC Hall in Kowloon, where he last appeared with his own band in the mid 1980s. This time he is playing with a trio that includes his son, Travis, on bass.

"He's a real musician, and his friend and now my friend, our drummer Gene Coye, is one of the top young musicians to come out of Los Angeles in the past decade. Musically, we are very comfortable playing together. Travis is 31 and Gene is just 30 so there is young energy in the trio."

Carlton made his name as an ace session guitarist in his early 20s. A studio date he played for British folkie Donovan, on which Crusaders' pianist Joe Sample also featured, led to an invitation to join Sample's band.

Carlton features prominently on many of The Crusaders' most commercially successful recordings, including the 1972 hit Put It Where You Want It.

"I think I ended up doing 13 albums with the guys. We were together off and on for about six years, maybe a little more. I had been a fan of the Crusaders in my teenage years when they were called The Jazz Crusaders. To be called six or seven years later to play with them was a thrill," he says.

His session career also continued to thrive through the '70s.

"I don't know how many artists I recorded with, but we estimated that I usually did about 500 three-hour sessions a year for about seven years. I was in the studio five or six days a week," he recalls.

Carlton admits to occasionally looking at internet sites such as to remind himself of which records he played on.

His career as a solo artist, playing blues and pop-influenced jazz fusion, began in earnest with 1978's Larry Carlton, which includes one of his signature tunes, Room 335 - the name of his home studio in Los Angeles, itself named after the model of Gibson electric guitar with which he is closely associated. Room 335 also features on his 2011 live Trio DVD, The Paris Concert.

In 1988, outside room 335, an incident occurred which could have ended his career, and almost ended his life. He became the victim of a random gang shooting.

"The bullet struck me in the neck and traumatised all of the nerves to my left arm," he recalls. "The arm completely atrophied and all they could do was physical therapy to reconnect those nerves, so that I could start building some muscle again. That was a long, long process to get the arm back, but it was a 100 per cent recovery."

He remained in LA for several years after the shooting, but in 1995 moved to Nashville to be nearer his children who were living there. Room 335 , he says, is now an accountant's office.

From his Tennessee base he continues to record and tour - including, notably, a series of guest appearances in 2009 with Steely Dan. "It was really fun. It had been 35 years since we cut The Royal Scam and I had never played live with them. They've been doing live concerts now for well over a decade, and they have a great band, great background vocalists, a great horn section and a wonderful musical director Jon [Herington] who plays guitar for them. It made my job as the guest very easy because Jon already knew all of my parts for the songs. Really, all I had to do was play the solos and any parts that I happened to remember, so there was very little pressure on me," he says.

These day Carlton concentrates on solo shows and projects with friends such as Toto guitarist and fellow star session man Steve Lukather, and blues guitarist Robben Ford.

When not on the road, life in Nashville suits him well, he says.

"I live a very rural lifestyle. I just moved recently, and I have a home now that overlooks a lake, so I look forward to doing some fishing when I'm not touring this year."

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The Larry Carlton Trio, February 16, 8.15pm, The Academic Community Hall, Kowloon Tong, HK$380-HK$680, hkticketing Inquiries: 9476 8655