The highest praise Duke Ellington would offer people he admired was to say that their music was “beyond category” – and, in many ways, that phrase exactly captures the spirit of GRAMMY® Award-winning guitar virtuoso Earl Klugh and his new, largely solo CD, HandPicked on Heads Up (part of the Concord Music Group). HandPicked debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Albums Chart and was nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Album at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. This is a disc that clearly reflects the guitarist’s view that, “Everything has its place. The fun of it is that you are not in a box. Music has no boundaries.”
Since Klugh released his inaugural album in 1976, the Detroit-born master of the acoustic-classical guitar has become one of the most imitated icons of the instrument, issued dozens of discs, 24 of which have been on Billboard’s top-10 list of jazz albums and 6 that made it to the No. 1 slot. During that time, Klugh’s recordings also received 13 GRAMMY® nominations (the latest for HandPicked) – and his collaboration with pianist Bob James, One on One, walked away with the 1980 GRAMMY® Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
In 1989, Klugh released his first solo-guitar album, titled simply Solo Guitar. Sixteen years later, his second solo recording, Naked Guitar, earned Klugh his 11th GRAMMY® nomination. Both of those discs were not only popular, but they received high critical praise as well. HandPicked follows the same path, with iTunes honoring HandPicked as “one of the finest recordings in [Klugh’s] catalogue.” Thirteen of the CD’s 16 tracks feature Klugh’s signature style of solo guitar mastery. The remaining tracks are duets with three very different players: famed jazz guitarist Bill Frisell; ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro; and Country Music Hall of Fame guitarist and singer Vince Gill.
Klugh is no stranger to collaborative work. His recordings, One on One, Two of a Kind and Cool with Bob James, and Collaboration with George Benson featured backing bands. However, HandPicked showcases Klugh’s first recorded duets in the purest sense of the word. No band, just beautifully arranged string duets between Earl and his friends.
But whatever the format, the songs on the CD were handpicked by the youthful looking Klugh to mark his 60th birthday in 2013. All of them highlight the intimate, intricate, reflective and lyrical approach to music that is the hallmark of the guitarist’s playing. And all of them were personally selected, handpicked, by Klugh, reflecting his favorite songs and offering a tribute to his musical heroes.
The birthday party gets started with “Alfie” written by Burt Bacharach in 1966. The song is the title tune for the film of the same name that had a soundtrack composed by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Klugh notes that he has always enjoyed Bacharach’s songs because they “don’t fit the typical stereotype of what a pop tune should be.” While Rollins’ version from the film is full of swagger, Klugh’s interpretation is gentler, with a hint of melancholy.
The next tune selected by Klugh, “Lullaby of Birdland,” goes back to his time touring with the quintet led by British-born pianist George Shearing. “This song is one of George’s classic tunes,” Klugh explains, “and it means a lot to me. In Detroit, I would always go to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and that’s where I heard Shearing. I had a chance to sit in with him there and a few weeks later I was on tour with him filling in for his guitar player who was ill.” On this version, Klugh provides his own, strumming rhythmic support for his laid-back guitar lines.
The CD’s third track moves from the be-bop-era classic “Lullaby” to one of Richard Rodgers’ contributions to the great American songbook, “Blue Moon,” with Bill Frisell’s electric guitar added to the mix. Written in 1939, “Blue Moon,” is a favorite tune of Klugh’s and this version was recorded in Portland, Oregon where Frisell’s engineer resides. Frisell, who is at the top of the list of electric jazz guitarists on the scene today, was part of Klugh’s “Night of Guitars” project from 2007 and the interplay between their distinctive guitar styles is most striking. After that duet, Klugh offers the first of his four original songs on the CD, “In Six” written in 6/8. It’s a good-feeling number that highlights the guitarist’s attraction to that time signature. In fact, two of the solo originals (“Venezuelan Nights” and “The Toy Guitar”) on the guitarist’s previous CD, The Spice of Life, were also written in 6/8, a time signature not all that common in popular music.
Then, the mood shifts to Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” from 1960. When it comes to this tune, Klugh says, “I love this song. It’s timeless – simple, but beautiful.” And the guitarist’s sense of timing on this song is impeccable, breathing new life into the frequently recorded tune.
The mood shifts again on the next track, the second of the duets on the CD. Klugh connected with ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro on a cruise ship where they were both performing and where they had the chance to play together. “We had a lot of fun trading licks,” Klugh says, and thus this collaboration on the Eagles mega-hit “Hotel California.” Both Klugh and the Honolulu-born Shimabukuro are fans of the Eagles and that’s apparent in the incredible and seamless blend of the two instruments on the tune.
“Earl Klugh has always been a huge inspiration to me,” says Shimabukuro. “He makes everything sound so beautiful. His tone is rich and pure — and his melodic phrasing is absolutely perfect. It was such an honor to join him on [this] record. Earl will always be one of my favorite string players.”
From the Eagles, Klugh journeys to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and the song “More and More Amor” from Alpert’s 1965 album Going Places. It’s another one of Klugh’s favorite melodies, and he explains his Tijuana connection this way: “After recording my first albums in New York, I decided to go to California to record at Herb Alpert’s A&M studios. Many of my friends from Detroit, such as Ray Parker Jr. and Greg Phillinganes, were in California so I spent a lot of time in L.A. over a five-year period. I just loved recording there – it was the best studio in the world at the time. I had access to everything there, musically speaking, and that changed things for me.” So, you can think of “More and More Amor” as a small, Latin-tinged tribute to that time in Klugh’s life.
When it comes to next track, “‘Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams, Klugh simply says, “You need a good, solid masterpiece from time to time.” And “Midnight” is exactly that.
The last half of the CD begins with Jimmy Van Heusen’s standard from 1947, “But Beautiful.” Like all the tunes on the disc, “But Beautiful” is included because it is a song that the guitarist really likes – and one to which he could add his own touch. From the great American songbook, Klugh moves to the Everly Brothers hit from 1958, “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” On this beautiful tune written by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, Vince Gill joins Klugh for the final duet on the CD. Though the track, recorded at Gill’s home studio in Nashville, features the country-music legend mainly on guitar, Vince, on his own, decided to include a brief vocal as well. As Klugh notes, “It was an honor to have Vince perform this duet with me. When he added his vocals on the bridge, it was a great surprise and a perfect compliment to the recording!”
20-Time GRAMMY®-winner Vince Gill has worked with countless artists over his career, and believes that a musician’s playing frequently reflects his or her personality. And in Klugh’s case, Gill is exactly on target when he notes that Earl plays “gracefully and kind and that’s how I found him to be as a person as well.”
Interestingly enough, “Dream” was not only a pop hit, it also reached the number one position on both the R&B and country charts. Additionally, the Everly Brothers’ song featured the guitar of Chet Atkins, who both Vince Gill and Klugh admire greatly. As people who have followed Klugh’s career well know, it was after seeing Atkins perform on the “Perry Como Show” that the then 13-year-old Klugh, who had been playing guitar for three years, knew exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. How well Klugh has succeeded in following his guitar dream is captured by a comment made by Atkins to Guitar Player magazine, saying that “Earl can wail with the best, but he prefers to touch people emotionally. He reaches your heart with that romantic special something.”
“Dream” is followed by another song drawn from the pop charts, Little Anthony and the Imperials’ 1964 hit “Goin’ Out of My Head” that Klugh says “was always one of my favorite songs as a kid.” Then, continuing along the popular-music path, Klugh explores what he describes, somewhat surprisingly, as his preferred song from the Beatles songbook,” “If I Fell.” Following the run of popular songs, Klugh serves up two new originals, the classically-colored, Segovia-like “Where the Wind Takes Me” and the folkish “Morning Rain.” The guitarist is a sophisticated songwriter and these two tracks offer ample evidence of that fact.
After the two new originals by Klugh, the guitarist turns to the 1955 Sammy Fain tune “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” On that song, Klugh comments that, “Most versions of the tune I had heard were vocals. I like the melody and decided to embrace that in an instrumental version.” And speaking of vocals, the final track is a solo guitar reinterpretation of Klugh’s “This Time.” The original song by the guitarist was on his 1978 album Finger Paintings. “I have had a lot of luck with this song,” Klugh says. After all, some six months after he recorded it, Al Jarreau added lyrics and that tune was the title track for the singer’s chart-busting 1980 album This Time. Klugh started playing a solo rendition of this song in his live shows, and both he and his fans fell in love with the tune all over again. Little wonder then that this is the song chosen to complete the circle of music found on HandPicked.
Born on September 16, 1953, Klugh was a teenager when saxophonist Yusef Lateef heard him practicing in a small music store where the young guitarist worked while in school. That led to an invitation to sit in with Lateef which, in turn, led to Klugh’s first appearance on an album, Lateef’s 1970 recording Suite 16 on Atlantic Records. Klugh was 16 at the time and performed as a guest on “Michelle.”
The following year the now 17-year-old guitarist, who developed in the musical melting pot of the Motor City, appeared on fellow guitarist George Benson’s White Rabbit album. He then joined Benson’s group and stayed for over a year before taking a brief, two-month spin with pianist Chick Corea’s highly charged Return to Forever band.
All of that carved a path to Blue Note Records and Klugh’s first, self-titled album released in 1976. The rest, as they say, is history. A history of gorgeous sounds produced on the nylon strings of his instrument. Klugh has been referred to as one of the key progenitors of what is often called contemporary jazz. But if any label fits the guitarist, it comes from George Benson’s comments telling listeners of Klugh’s 1976, inaugural album how thrilled they will be when they hear Earl’s “complete mastery of his instrument and his beautiful, sensitive reflections.” That was true then and it, as HandPicked amply demonstrates, is even more valid today.
During the more than three-and-a-half decades since the Earl Klugh album came out on Blue Note, the guitarist’s magic on stage continues to delight audiences across the globe. Whether he is performing in a solo context, with his quartet, with his electric band, with his ‘Little Big Band” or with renowned symphony orchestras, Klugh is a master alchemist, turning nylon strings into pure musical gold. As he notes, “The essential excitement of music-making is renewed in every studio and stage performance. Once I get into the actual song, I try to go back to what made me write the song or decide to perform it. I try to keep myself in an open mind, so I don’t reproduce the record [but instead] create a live performance at that moment. I play it for myself as if it’s the first time I’m doing it.”
Music isn’t about staying still. As Klugh told Modern Guitars magazine, “My enjoyment is searching out new things to play every day, and ways to play them. There’s so much I want to do. If there were nothing else to learn and do there’d be no reason to play.”
On the symphonic front, Klugh has produced more than 50 charts for classical orchestras orchestrated by GRAMMY® winners Don Sebesky, Dave Grusin, Johnny Mandel and Clare Fischer. And a decade ago, the guitarist brought jazz back to the Broadmoor Hotel and Resort in Colorado Springs with his annual Weekend of Jazz event that has featured major artists such as, Al Jarreau, Chris Botti, Joe Sample, Roberta Flack, Arturo Sandoval, Bob James, Patti Austin, Chuck Mangione, Peabo Bryson, Kirk Whalum, Spyo Gyra and a host of others.
In 2010, the guitarist added a second, east coast edition of the Weekend of Jazz on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. During both events at the two Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five-Diamond rated resorts, Klugh is the perfect host, spending time with his fans morning, noon and night. “The fans always amaze me,” he says. “So many have shared stories and memories of what my music has meant to them. It’s the most wonderful compliment I could ever receive.”
In addition to his Weekend of Jazz events and touring with his group, Klugh has recently appeared at the last two editions of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, performed at a dedicated show at the Country Music Hall of Fame in honor of Chet Atkins as part of the exhibit Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player and was a guest performer with Jimmy Buffett as well as Vince Gill. Internationally, he has made stops in 2013 in South Africa, Japan and Indonesia.
As a composer and songwriter, Klugh’s credit appears on a wide range of recordings from artists such as Aretha Franklin, Jamie Foxx, Roberta Flack, Mary J. Blige, Kenny Loggins, Al Jarreau and many others. And he has been a guest artist with musicians from Buffett, Loggins, Brenda Russell and Stevie Wonder to jazz masters Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner.
When it comes to films, Klugh’s guitar is on the soundtrack scores of How to Beat the High Cost of Living, Marvin and Tige and Just Between Friends. CBS Golf embraced Klugh’s “Take it From the Top” as their theme song for many years of exciting coverage of the sport. And moving from the silver screen to television, he has performed on such iconic shows as The Tonight Show, Late Night featuring David Letterman, The Today Show and Good Morning America. In addition to his 13 GRAMMY® nominations and his GRAMMY® statue for the million-selling album, One on One, with Bob James, Klugh also won the 1987 Edison Award (the European equivalent to the GRAMMY®) for Life Stories and his 1987 disc with George Benson, Collaboration, was certified Gold by the RIAA. His latest three releases, Naked Guitar (2005), The Spice of Life (2008), and HandPicked (2014) went back-to-back-to-back as GRAMMY® nominated albums for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
Raised in the exciting cauldron of Motor City music, Klugh absorbed a wide spectrum of influences from Atkins and Wes Montgomery to Sergio Mendes, Laurindo Almeida and guitar music from Brazil, Argentina and Spain. The pop tunes of Burt Bacharach and the Beatles, as well as The Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary studio-session band, were also part of the mix, along with the lyrical jazz piano of Bill Evans. “I love the emotions music evokes, and the stories it tells,” he says. “No matter the genre, or style, I can always find something to enjoy.” So forget the labels and just let the emotions flow while enjoying the sounds Klugh has handpicked for this landmark CD.
>> Click here to download (bio, logo, photos, one sheet)