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Guitarist Takes It Easy

Smooth, melodious playing has helped Larry Carlton attain renown. And moving from L.A. to Nashville has brought a gentle change in lifestyle.


These days, you have to make a concerted effort to avoid the sound of easy-does-it pop-jazz, funneled onto adult contemporary radio formats and into grocery stores everywhere. Much of it is so bland and formulaic that it leaves barely a trace as it passes through one ear and out the other.

But it wasn't always thus. Just ask guitarist Larry Carlton, whose impressive resume goes back 25 years to the days when groove-lined soul-jazz was just a gleam in someone's eye. Specifically, bands like the Crusaders and the L.A. Express--both of which Carlton played with at some point--were carving out a smooth, softly funkified brand of jazz, forging the vocabulary that decades later would be diluted by people like Kenny G.

By default, Carlton, 48, may be a part of that easy-listening world, but his distinctive gifts of smooth technique and melodiousness set him apart. He'll play at the Ventura Theatre on Friday, as part of a three-date tour in Southern California.

But for a change, Carlton won't be coming to the gig from just down the road. After a life spent helping define an L.A. sound, in October Carlton and wife Michelle loaded up the truck and moved to just outside Nashville. The truth is, said Carlton, "I've wanted to live a more rural lifestyle for 20 years." They live on a couple of hundred acres, where they "ride horses and go fishing," he said. "It's not the city, that's for sure. We're groovin' pretty big time now."


Though he was born and bred in Los Angeles, Carlton's parents hailed from Oklahoma, and young Larry visited the state often enough to instill a desire to head back to the American middle.

In Nashville, he also finds a gentler spirit in the music scene. "In the music community, and especially the songwriting community, it's just an open book here," Carlton said. "They welcome you, they appreciate you and want to interact with you. Everybody supports everybody. It's not clique-y like it can be in Los Angeles. Consequently, there are many opportunities to interact with people who you think are great."

He recently finished recording a new album in Nashville for the GRP label, to be called "The Gift." After penning countless tunes for more than dozen projects over the years, Carlton professes an especially strong affection for this new batch.

"I personally feel that the songwriting is possibly the strongest I've ever done," he said. "When I write an album, I realize that people are listening to the songs. They're not . . waiting for the solos to get here. I'm very conscious of that, because I like melodies."

To hear some of Carlton's best guitar playing, proceed to his tasteful riffing rejoinders on Joni Mitchell's "Hejira" or Steely Dan's "Royal Scam," which includes Carlton's by-now-famous neatly sculpted solo on the hit "Kid Charlemagne." Carlton's work with Steely Dan brought out the best of his blend of sophistication and impeccable taste--the right note at the right time approached from the right angle.

A self-effacing sort, Carlton shrugs in the face of terms such as "legendary."

"I remember after doing the 'Royal Scam' album, the album came out and I didn't have a copy. I read a review in Rolling Stone or Billboard where they were raving about my guitar solo on 'Kid Charlemagne.' The record arrived in the mail and I put it on with my wife. We listened to it, and I said to her, 'Well, it does sound like me.'

"I didn't realize that it was going to be that big of a deal. For me, it was just another day at the office that I really enjoyed, and then I went on with my life. I don't think you can plan or know that that kind of thing will touch so many people."

Carlton spent most of the last two decades as a solo artist, building up a respectable discography and reputation. It all began with the desire to get out and play live. "I was so burnt out doing all those [studio] dates that I just started playing the local clubs in Hollywood. I thought 'Wow, this is what I used to do when I was passionate about making music.' I played six nights a week from my senior year in high school on. It felt great to be a player again and not so much the technician in the studio."

Which is not to say that Carlton regrets his intensive years spent burrowing into the windowless domain of the studio circuit. "To play three sessions a day, five days a week, with some of the best musicians in the world in a studio environment teaches you a lot of finesse that you can't learn on the street. There's such high critical standards that you have to rise to."


Carlton's most recent album on his contract with GRP was "Larry and Lee," a collaboration with Lee Ritenour, a fellow studio cat who turned solo pop-jazz performer. Ironically, the slightly younger Ritenour was coming on the scene just as Carlton's session legacy was peaking, and would sometimes be called on to do session work when Carlton was booked.

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