You've almost certainly heard Larry Carlton's distinctive guitar chops – even if you haven't realised it. After picking up the guitar at the age of six, Carlton developed into a much in-demand studio player throughout the '70s and '80s, laying down licks on records by Joni Mitchell, Sammy Davis Jr, Billy Joel, Jerry Garcia, Dolly Parton, John Lennon, Quincy Jones, The Four Tops, Barbra Streisand – and even Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. One such lick, his tasty run on Steely Dan's 'Kid Charlemagne', was rated by Rolling Stone magazine as the third greatest guitar lick in rock.
Also playing with The Crusaders for 13 years and working on numerous film and TV soundtracks, including Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon, in the early '70s Carlton struck off on his own producing a consistent run of instrumental jazz-fusion and smooth jazz records, picking up his fourth Grammy last year for Take Your Pick, named Best Pop Instrumental Album. Now aged 65 and continuing to play more than 100 shows across the globe every year, we caught up with Carlton ahead of his headline slot at the Dubai Jazz Festival on Friday February 14.
He's known as 'Mr 335', for his distinctive 'sweet' guitar tone on a Gibson ES-335.
'When I first started doing session work in late 1969, I never knew what sort of music I was going to have to play on the next session, so I had to take many different kinds of guitars – a Fender Telecaster, a Stratocaster, a jazz guitar of some kind, an acoustic guitar, and usually a Les Paul – and I wished for and found a guitar which could cover many of those sounds so I didn't have to always carry so many guitars. For me, the 335 is a guitar I can play country music on, pop music, I could play the blues, straight ahead jazz, so it seems that that guitar is as versatile as my playing could be – a really good find.'
He worked on all of Joni Mitchell's classic late-'70s jazz-influenced records, including Court and Spark and career high Hejira.
'The sessions [for Hejira] were done one person at a time. When I came in to play all I had to listen to was Joni's acoustic guitar and her vocal, and she just had me go out into the studio and react to the music. She gave me no direction, there was no time ahead of time to learn the songs – that's never the way we've done our sessions – we come in fresh and we react to the tunes on the spot. On that record [Joni] had me play three, four, maybe five [takes] of reaction guitar, and then that would be the end of it. I would leave and she would later choose and pick which of my reactions she really wanted and agreed with on that song, and I think she did a great job of editing my parts, they fit like a glove on her tunes.'
He played alongside jazz legends Stanley Clark and Billy Cobham in a jazz supergroup, captured on the Clarke's LP Live at the Greek.
'It was a unique line-up for sure. I had never played with Billy, and I don't think I'd ever played with Stanley or Najeed. By the time we got to The Greek it was a tight show, everybody was very comfortable with the material and each others' playing – so you're right – it's intuitive, and very free and very comfortable to listen to because we were all so comfortable.'
But that was nothing compared with working with Miles Davis on the soundrack to Bill Murray movie Scrooged (1988), where both men made a cameo.
'I was very intimated being around Miles, I had so much respect for him, and had been listening to his music and hearing about him since my early teenage years. I was kind of in awe, and definitely intimated and hoped to please The Man.'
He prefers to play guitar with his eyes closed.
'[When improvising] there is some kind of awareness of the harmony, some awareness of some kind of melodic statement that I played and now must develop, but I've always experienced many, many times what you've called a trance, and that's really fun because the music is coming out of you and you're just a passenger. The first time that happened for me I was 20 years old, and once you experience going into a trance and getting the music to pour out of you freely, you want to experience that any and every time you can again. That's why I close my eyes when I play: I want to get as close to the guitar, as close to the music, and as close to listening to what's going on as I possibly can.'
His playing has reached more than 20 million pairs of ears with 'She's Out of My Life' from Michael Jackson's Off the Wall.
'The track had already been cut, just the Fender Rhodes part and Michael's master vocal was on the track – so I was playing to a keyboard and Michael's vocal. And it was really a session for one of the greatest producer's ever, one of the greatest artists of all time – Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. Michael is a huge loss in the musical world, his statement for over 30 years won't be matched by many people in a lifetime. It's a big, big loss and I'm honoured that I got to play on one tune for him.'
He can take or leave the 'smooth jazz' classification.
'I have definitely made records and had success with records in what is dubbed the “smooth jazz” market. That market came about at a really good time for those of us who don't sing, we could make our instrumental music, and at least have a place on the radio for people to hear it and decide whether they liked it or not. In general I think the term "smooth jazz" is not accurate – over the past 25 years it has had very, very, very little to do with jazz. But I've also been very fortunate in my career that I've made many, many different kind of albums, so being labelled as a "smooth jazz guitarist" – yes some of my material is in that vein, but if you look at my whole career, I'm definitely been very fortunate to step out of that arena many times.'