Earl Klugh was smooth before there even was smooth jazz, and this is a distinction of no little merit. Smooth jazz, the radio format and marketing niche, is mind-numbingly repetitive and derivative. So having been one of the style’s progenitors—a badge Klugh can legitimately wear along with very few others (Grover Washington, Jr. and David Sanborn on saxophones, Bob James on the keyboard, George Benson and Mr. Klugh on guitars, along with their truly savvy producers and arrangers)—is to be a prescient original.
What Mr. Klugh brought to the game was the idea of putting his distinctive acoustic guitar sound in the middle of the lite-funk beats, high-melody arrangements, and easy textures of ‘70s pop-jazz. Citing as his influences Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, and The Beatles, Mr. Klugh was the most honest and appealing of the first generation smoothies—he knew he was making tuneful and light discs, and he had just the piquant acoustic technique to do it with a confessed confectioner’s sincerity.
So, what happens when a pop musician like Mr. Klugh—who does not sprinkle his web site or promotional materials with references to Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt—makes an album of solo acoustic jazz? Should we review it differently than, say, something new by Jon Scofield or Jim Hall?
Well, it doesn’t matter, as this remarkable disc stands up under “pure jazz” scrutiny and succeeds as pleasing pop balladry. With the string section, funk bass, soulful sax, and Fender Rhodes bedding stripped away, what remains is the percussive sound of six cleanly-struck guitar strings—framing swing and bossa rhythms, imaginative harmony and pure melody on a series of standards. It’s a delight.
Mr. Klugh comes out swinging. On the one-two opening combination (“The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads”), the plain reference point is the solo guitar playing of Joe Pass. Mr. Klugh steps up to the plate, simultaneously playing bass line, harmony, and melody while maintaining a feeling of slow swing throughout. Guitar players will know how truly difficult this is, particularly when your improvisation takes you into unknown waters. Mr. Klugh is more than up to the task, running the swing feeling through all the elements of his playing in a state of continual discovery. “Baubles” is particularly remarkable for its frequent quicksilver runs and pauses, as the swing feeling seems suspended, only to be rescued again a moment later, right on time.
Mr. Klugh is different from Mr. Pass, of course, but not always in detrimental ways. Of course, he is not the pure virtuoso that Mr. Pass was, but he has compensating strengths. Most notably, Mr. Klugh has an instinct for samba rhythms and blends them beautifully with swing feel. On “Thousand Eyes”, then, he expresses the bridge in bossa feel, then wisely keeps that momentum in his playing as he begins to improvise. More astonishingly, he recasts The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a bossa nova from start to finish—such that it very nearly eludes identification (and thus, odious comparison). The original, “Angelina”—a particularly tasty track from his very first album—has a subtly built-in Latin feel as well. Each case is different, and the card is not overplayed.
Perhaps the record’s highlight is Mr. Klugh’s remarkably faithful rendition of Bill Evans’ “Alice in Wonderland”. Played as a particularly loose waltz at first, the improvisation takes on a push-and-pull momentum that seems particularly guitar-driven and therefore different from most versions we’ve heard. It is refreshing that the song stays uptempo as the melody returns, then ends on a statement of the harmonies to the bridge. Nearly as good is Mr. Klugh’s free and even carefree version of “All the Things You Are”, where he seems less interested in carrying his listeners along than in letting the song push him into harmonic alleys for exploration. This is about as far from “Smooth Jazz” as I can imagine Mr. Klugh going on record, yet he seems more than comfortable with it.
Isn’t it glorious to imagine Earl Klugh sitting at home working out these intricate and imaginative arrangements of great songs after one of his less challenging gigs? I can see him alone in a room, playing just for himself, not caring about record sales, wondering what his smooooove audience would do with his carefully rendered “Summer Knows”. But, I think his audience—an audience weaned on undemanding instrumental pop—will love this music. Mr. Klugh is unflinchingly melodic, and his crisp tone and unique attack is quite the same as on his best-selling records. If any record is likely to appeal to multiple audiences, this could be it.
I can’t decide if it is a sour or an ingenious note to have included “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead”. The two-feel arrangement starts utterly straight then veers into tart harmony before inserting that little Munchkin tune. With no improvising or modern jazz feel, the tune sounds like a bit of a party trick, though one that will put a massive grin on your face.
Wherever you are, Earl Klugh, Joe Pass is one of the people grinning. He knows how hard a recital like this is to render, and he thinks you played beautifully. Next thing you know, you’re going to get, say, Diana Krall, to record an album of guitar-vocal duets.
I’ll be waiting.
// Notes from the Road
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