“I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, not in speech, but in little splotches of colour."
In Earl Klugh’s newest release, Naked Guitar, listeners are treated to a rare form of unplugged music that draws its power not from AC, but from bare fingers driving phosphor-bronze and nylon, which in turn set spruce and rosewood into harmonious, sympathetic vibrations. And if those sounds could be translated into Pound’s "splotches of colour," they would surely require a palette that goes beyond the visual spectrum. In like manner, Klugh's music breaches the boundaries of what even seems possible to do on the instrument.
Indeed, no single approach to playing the guitar pushes its limits more than fingerstyle, where the greatest potential of the instrument is realized. And in Klugh's gifted hands, melody, improvisations, independently moving bass lines, and inner voices combine to create all the dynamics of a symphony. And yet with his newest outing, as the title suggests, he does so with unusual intimacy.
Naked Guitar, Klugh’s KOCH Records debut, is just that—Earl and a guitar, with nothing else coming between that union and the listener. Just pure, unadorned music in all its glory. No overdubs, no tricks, no effects, no net. And through it all, familiar melodies soar above his simultaneously executed, rhythm-infused self-accompaniment. While this exciting new music is at once complex and warm, overwhelming and inviting, memorable and original, it is, in every sense, uniquely Earl Klugh. From the opening passage to the last note, Klugh's long-time fans will know they're in the company of an old friend. Even those hearing Earl's music for the first time will find in it a peculiar quality of familiarity. And that's not surprising. Considering a career that spans 30 years and as many albums, his immense influence on the landscape of "smooth jazz" has been filtered through legion imitators. Yet the best anyone has ever mustered is a mere hinting of the real thing.
Earl Klugh's inimitable musical voice is among those true originals that can be counted on one hand. "For me," he says, "it has always been my greatest joy to explore and create my own unique thing." Klugh credits one-time mentor and band mate George Benson with encouraging him in that direction. While still a teenager, he was touring with Benson's band, and still finding his musical footing. Klugh remembers well Benson's advice. “He said to me, ‘Earl, this is what you do; just do it. You've got your own spin on things. Don’t worry about what other people are doing; just keep moving forward.’ ”
That “spin” as Benson noted, has, to date, generated 13 Grammy nods, record sales in the multi-millions, innumerable hours of airplay, and what has amounted to numerous world tours. But there was, of course, a beginning—the defining moment of which occurred in January, 1967.
On a cold evening in Detroit, a 13-year young Earl Klugh sat down with his mother to watch the Perry Como Show. Como's special guest that night was none other than Chet Atkins. Earl was enraptured by the performance, never having witnessed such a display of musical mastery. “Chet's playing opened up a whole other world,” he remembers. “I had never heard the guitar being played like that. And the experience changed my life; it marked my destiny.”
Little had Earl imagined then that he would someday share the stage with Atkins, let alone find himself in his studio, recording with the legendary figure, himself. (Klugh guested on several of Atkins’ albums, and Chet reciprocated by joining Klugh on his 1978 Magic in Your Eyes.)
That seminal inspiration melded with other sounds of the day, notably those of Burt Bacharach, the Beatles, and Sergio Mendez, and further shaped Klugh's burgeoning musicality. Says Klugh, “I grew up a huge fan of great songwriting—from Brazilian music to the Beatles—and it always seemed natural to bring all those influences into the style that I developed as a guitarist." But perhaps more important was the inescapable influence of his hometown Motown. In those days, the infamous Funk Brothers, after laying down tracks all day for the likes of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, could be found at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, blowing out some serious jazz. And at least one night a week, the teenaged Klugh could be found in the audience. Escorted by his mother or chaperoned by the club owner, young Earl couldn't get enough of the music. And apparently, neither could the many musicians who passed through get enough of Klugh. Of the many legends he met or sat in with at Baker's, he went on to work professionally with George Benson, Yusef Lateef, George Shearing, and Chic Corea, joining the lineup of the first incarnation of Corea’s Return to Forever. In 1976, with such heady credentials under his belt, Klugh was signed as a solo artist to Blue Note Records, a stint that included the release of his aptly titled Dreams Come True.
A continuous string of trend-setting releases would follow, with Klugh garnering particular accolades for his three collaborations with keyboardist Bob James. Their Grammy-winning One on One (1979) was a veritable watershed in contemporary jazz, still cited for its astonishing combination of progressive daring and popular accessibility—hallmarks that continue to describe Klugh's projects, including his latest.
Naked Guitar marks a return to the studio after a six-year hiatus. But the intervening years have been anything but fallow. Dedicating himself to a form of music called “live performance,” Klugh has been busy delighting audiences the world over, from South America to South Africa. Further, in 2003, he was invited to take part in Moscow's Parliament Jazz Festival. In January, 2005, he joined fellow contemporary jazz legends George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Al Jarreau, and Ravi Coltrane on a special American Goodwill tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department as part of a Tsunami relief effort, bringing Klugh's music to India for the first time. And over the course of the past two years, Klugh has been instrumental in the return of jazz to one of the legendary swing era venues, Colorado Springs' Broadmoor Hotel, where he plays host to the Weekend of Jazz at the Broadmoor, and bringing with him the likes of Joe Sample, Bob James, Chris Bode, and other greats.
Klugh has also expanded his horizons as a composer and songwriter, his music having been recorded by Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Mary J. Blige, Al Jarreau, and many others. And a great many artists, including Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Loggins, Brenda Russell, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, and McCoy Tyner have engaged Klugh's warm guitar stylings to add a bit of that "Klugh magic" to their own recordings. This would all be remarkable enough without mentioning his work in film; Klugh's work with composer Patrick Williams can be heard in How to Beat the High Cost of Living, Marvin and Tige, and Just Between Friends. And sprinkled among all the activities have been numerous television appearances, including the Tonight Show, David Letterman, The Today Show, and Good Morning America.
In Naked Guitar, though, Klugh finds himself back with the one who "brung him to the ball." A new high watermark in fingerstyle jazz guitar, the refreshing collection features solo interpretations of thirteen standards and pop classics, as well as Angelina, a favorite from his self-titled 1976 solo debut—a fitting closing track that in many ways brings his career full circle. Stylistically, Naked Guitar will remind longtime fans of his one previous acoustic guitar-only gem, 1989’s Solo Guitar, which was released amidst a flurry of more pop-oriented recordings that proved significant in the development of smooth jazz: Collaboration (a reunion duo recording with George Benson), Whispers and Promises, and Midnight In San Juan, which hit #1 on virtually every jazz radio and retail chart.
Reflecting on the new record, Klugh muses on his motivations for producing projects. "It's to do something interesting and unique," he says. "The guitar presents so many possibilities, but for me, it's how you utilize all those possibilities to create your own identity, your own sound, your own way. There's the magic for me. And each time out, I really love to go down unexpected paths.”
Working in his home studio, Klugh put his indelible stamp on a record that feels as though he's playing right in your living room. The well-sequenced song list includes such venerable standards as The Summer Knows, All the Things You Are, Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead, On A Clear Day, Alice in Wonderland, and Moon River, "because," Klugh says, "a good song holds timeless appeal." And Klugh's fresh, imaginative renderings only add to their timelessness.
An intriguing addition is the Beatles' I Want To Hold Your Hand, the melody of which finds itself oddly at home in the twists and turns of a salsa-inspired rhythm. Explains Klugh, "From the experience of making Solo Guitar, I knew that the key to keeping listeners excited was having rich rhythmic variation." Other pieces rounding out the offering, The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, Baubles, Bangles And Beads, Serenata, Who Can I Turn To, Be My Love, and In The Moonlight, are no mere afterthoughts; his ideas and arrangements for all the tunes that made the cut had been incubating for years. “I knew it would be fun to get back to work," says Klugh, "playing songs I have loved for a long time. Many of my choices didn’t come with a preconceived rhyme or reason; they’re more about the feeling of the moment. It was exciting making a record this way.”
It's even more exciting to hear it. It's been a long time coming.