When he heard his first blues album by B.B. King back when he was 15, he knew that he would always be influenced by that experience. In his live performances, the highlight of the show is when he performs the blues. He says no "matter what they come to hear, when I play the blues, that's when I most passionately connect with them and my guitar."
Carlton pays homage to the blues with his newest CD, Sapphire Blue. More than any other release he has recorded, Sapphire Blue proves the emotion that he feels when performing the music that touches him. He says, "It is definitely one of the most honest CD's I've made. I can personally hear the freedom in the CD that maybe didn't exist to quite that degree in the past." Carlton says the audience feels that freedom in the music he plays. "I felt that for many, many years," says Carlton, "and that has been reinforced to me because the audience always gets it. They can relate so strongly to just the passion and the emotion with which I deliver the blues, that there's that wonderful instant connection between artist, his instrument and the audience."
Being able to record Sapphire Blue was kind of a return to how Larry Carlton was able to record music when he signed his first solo record contract. He says, "When I first started recording in the late 70's as a solo artist, I was given complete freedom from the record company. They would give me a budget and I would go in and make the music that I wanted to make. And then the market comes into place some ten or twelve years later to where the record company is saying 'Larry, do whatever you want to do, but make sure you give us a radio hit.' So things change and that's part of the record business. But with Sapphire Blue I was given the same opportunity that I was previously given in my career. 'Do whatever you want to do, Larry,' and this was the project I wanted to do."
After recording Sapphire Blue, Carlton toured not only the United States, but around the world to support the CD. He says, "I had the opportunity since July to tour with the eight-piece band and perform the songs from Sapphire Blue. From Moscow to Milan, to Lisbon, to Barbados, there's been that instant connection between this kind of music and my guitar playing and the audience. It's just been a wonderful year to present this music."
As with most projects, Larry Carlton wrote most of the material for Sapphire Blue. He says, "There are some sophisticated harmonies in these compositions, after all, I was born in 1948, not in 1920. But Sapphire Blue is mainly about saying more with less, with making major statements in a basic format. I've always admired that quality, even when John Coltrane was doing his most advanced harmonic thing. You could break his statements down to something elegant, something you could easily hum."
When writing the songs for Sapphire Blue, Carlton says even though he wrote the songs close to the standard blues form, he wanted to keep it fresh. He says, "A few of the tunes were pretty traditional, like Friday Night Shuffle or Just An Excuse. But most of them have little extensions or elaborations that help push the performance along. On the title track, for instance, the backdrop is pretty harmonically advanced. I got that from listening to Ray Charles. He would alter the chords in his ballads so that they came from more of a gospel place and that would actually enhance his blues singing. So the blues doesn't have to stay simple as long as you can play soulfully over it."
After writing the songs, Larry Carlton had to get the right kind of musicians to back him up. It took him a while to find the perfect band because of scheduling, but when he found them, he brought them all to Nashville and in just two days, the main tracks were recorded. He got drummer Billy Kilson, bassist Michael Rhodes, keyboardist Matt Rollings, Reese Wynans on the Hammond B-3 organ and saxophonist Mark Douthit. Each of the musicians knows that Carlton likes his musicians to work together, and it show in Sapphire Blue. He says, "It's easy to be honest with the caliber of musicians we have on this CD. I like to surround myself with people who do what I always want to try to do, which is to check their ego at the door. I'm not out there to impress anyone. I'm out there to express myself. That's a big difference and these guys understand that completely."
Larry Carlton's love of the blues is not only shown on stage or recording, it is also shown in what he listens to on his own. He says, "It’s been consistent for many, many years that on satellite radio, I either have the straight ahead jazz station on or the traditional blues station. And if I'm on the road and I take some CD's. It's either John Coltrane or it is Albert King, Albert Collins, those kinds of players." He is a big supporter of satellite radio because he believes people should have the opportunity of listening to various styles of music. He says, "I think it's healthy to let the audience, meaning the general public, be exposed to as much as they can. Then they can decide whether they like that, kind of like it, or don't care for it. But with the limited programming of over-the-air radio, they don't have the opportunity to make any choices."
The release of Sapphire Blue and its accompanying tour does not mean that Carlton will leave Fourplay. In fact, Carlton says he and his Fourplay cohorts, keyboardist Bob James, drummer Harvey Mason and bassist Nathan East, will be going back into the studio in early February to record the next Fourplay project. He says, "We will not start touring until next August." With his work with Fourplay, his newest CD Sapphire Blue and the possibility of another solo CD project near the end of the year, Larry Carlton has shown that he continues to strive for excellence while always showing his emotions through his guitar. Carlton is an American original.