By Tim Hornyak
If you’ve ever heard hit songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me,” Michael Jackson’s “She’s Outta My Life,” or Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” you’ve heard Larry Carlton playing guitar. Mitchell described his sweet, melodic sound as “fly fishing” but you could also compare it to a fine Scotch: effortlessly smooth.
For half a century, the legendary guitarist has laid down his guitar work on thousands of session and solo recordings, as well as TV and movie soundtracks, earning four Grammys along the way. He sat down with me ahead of his latest Japan tour, which takes him across the country including dates in Tokyo and Osaka.
“Japan is absolutely a special place,” says Carlton. “The loyalty of Japanese audiences has been unique compared to my experience in the rest of the world. Many places, especially in the U.S., if you have a hit record on the radio, your audience comes because they’re hearing you on the radio. In Japan, because I’ve been coming so much, they want to see my artistry, and they really do not seem to care if I have a new album out. I so appreciate the fact that they want to hear me play the guitar and it’s not based on any kind of hype or promotion.”
To thank Japan fans, Carlton is bringing a special guest. Bass duties in his band are usually the responsibility of his son Travis, but this time Carlton will be joined by Richard Bona, an award-winning jazz bassist and singer who has been compared to Jaco Pastorius, Sting and Joao Gilberto; Carlton and Bona have never played together before. Rounding out the band are Paul Weimar on saxophone, Ruslan Sirota on keyboards and Gene Coye on drums. The band will be doing a five-night residency at Blue Note Tokyo from August 29 to September 2.
Carlton first came to Japan around 1973 when he was 25 and was touring with jazz-fusion outfit The Crusaders. He remembers being overwhelmed by what was then exotic Japanese food at nightly banquets arranged by the tour promoter.
“I was not very open-minded about food, and I actually brought a box of crackers and peanut butter,” says Carton, now a devotee of tempura and ramen. “That’s changed drastically over the years.”
Carlton has come a long way since, at age 3, he discovered an old acoustic guitar his mother played as a teenager. He began lessons at 6 and was soon absorbing the sounds of jazz guitarists such as Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel. One recording that made a particularly strong impact was John Coltrane’s Ballads (1963): “I melted,” Carlton recalls about when he heard it. “I can’t explain it, but for me, it was like, I want a piece of that.” After a stint playing in Los Angeles clubs, in 1968 he released his first album, With a Little Help From My Friends. His signature Gibson ES-335 guitar, the basis of his moniker “Mr. 335,” dates to the following year.
In the 1970s, he was in constant demand as a session man, recording tracks for Linda Ronstadt, Henry Mancini and Christopher Cross among many others. He played with the best of the best, drummer Jeff Porcaro, keyboardist Michael Omartian, and bassist Chuck Rainey, and satisfied notorious studio perfectionists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.
Carlton’s breathtaking solos and virtuosic mix of blues, jazz and rock, the latter manifest on tracks like “Don’t Take Me Alive” from Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam (1976), figure prominently on many tunes that some now describe as “yacht rock”: meticulously made mid-’70s to early ’80s pop with an emphasis on smooth. At the time, though, Carlton wasn’t aware of being part of any movement.
“Any session I did was just another day at the office,” he says. “I never sat back and analyzed the music [of the era]. I just knew people liked what I played and I sounded different from everyone else.”
Now 71, Carlton spends the most of his time at his home in the Nashville area, taking care of his grandchildren and fishing in a lake by his property. He has reduced his live performances from 140 per year to about 60 or 70, which makes his Japan dates all the more special.
“I hope people in Japan can join me for a unique experience with Richard Bona, because we haven’t played together, and of course it will be wonderful,” says Carlton. “It’s exciting for me to have that kind of interaction without rehearsals and big plans, and I think it will be exciting for audiences as well.”