Larry Carlton: Deep Into It

Larry Carlton
Deep Into It
Warner Bros.

I take it Larry Carlton is not somebody who gets tired of people still associating him with the Crusaders. He was with them for less than two years and has since been on about a 100 albums, not a few under his own name. Anyhow for his latest he has chosen to open and close the set with a very Crusaderish reading of “Put It Where You Want It” — thus giving the Joe Sample warhorse a 16-minute run it hardly cries out for. You might have thought Carlton would be sick of the tune; he used to feature on it at length in the ’70s live shows. Yet he attacks with relish and puts in some of his most incisive licks and (almost) makes you forget how you actually never wanted to hear this again for another lifetime or so.

In fact, the whole album runs something along those lines. The last thing the world needs is another smooth jazz guitar session, but when Carlton particularly in his more bluesy mode, starts to flow the results are easy on the ear in the right rather than the predictable way. Carlton always was a guitarist with an ear for the bluer tones, reminiscent of a less vibrato-driven B.B. King. Most of the Rock Monster indulgences which occasionally marred his ’70s work have been exorcised without removing that essential ingredient. This gives Carlton the singular distinction of being the only guitarist on the smooth circuit whose phrasing is instantly recognisable.

That is it really. If you warm to that guitar technique, then this is a very acceptable album. If it leaves you cold, so will Deep Into It. The numbers really vary only in pace. The uptempo side is provided by “Put it”, the slow and soothing by the warm-bath feeling of “Closer to Home”, while the just this side of mid-tempo semi-funkiness of “Deep Into It” completes the range. The mood is relaxed, indolent even, and the musicianship suitably seasoned and assured. Mobile, but unhurried, characterises the best about the set and unhurried to the point of immobility the worst.

So, Stevie Winwood’s “Roll with It” becomes a good platform for some relaxed, roadhouse blues extemporisation, with sax man Kirk Whalum encouraged to emerge from his usual torpor and get a little closer to King Curtis. “Morning Magic”, by contrast, is a by-numbers, daytime playlist piece that is just too polite for its own good. When the 12-bar inflections wane the general vacuity of the material starts to dominate and the lack of urgency becomes a problem.

Take the vocal tracks. Wendy Moten does an acceptable job on “I Still Believe” but it remains a fairly bland MOR song. Far worse is Shai’s attempt to produce a smooth R&B reading of the Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why” that is grim if you like the Eagles and grimmer if you don’t. This is the AOR/Fourplay side of Carlton and it has little going for it. The production by (Midas Touch) Paul Brown is clean and spare and that helps Carlton’s adroitness and clarity as a player to shine, but when he steps back and the melodies dominate their essential weakness is exposed.

Still, for half an album there is the relatively engaging experience of a master craftsman giving a lesson in refined, cool, post-fusion blues. Fans will not be disappointed. Stronger vocal numbers and more out-and-out soul/jazz material would have suited me better, if not the radio stations where this collection will find its most ready home. Aspiring guitarists will learn economy and the appropriation of space as succinctly from Carlton as anybody. He has the knack of seeming to create a large gap and then filling it with just enough notes, a talent which always impresses.

That is achievement enough perhaps, but if you thought he might have stretched himself a bit further with this release, not a bit of it. The groundwork has been done, Carlton is happy with it. You might want him to move on from “Put It Where You Want It”, but the ex-Crusader is happy to be an ex-Crusader (even if his hair is greyer and less silly looking these days). Joe Sample’s nagging repeat riff is going to be around a few years more, finely honed and frustratingly familiar.Deep Into It has its share of admirable qualities — adventurousness is not one of them.