Larry Carlton: Last Nite 30 Years On

MCA Records, released June 1987

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, summer 1987

9/10

In a previous piece about Robert Cray, I talked about ‘touch’ guitarists, those whose sounds are almost entirely ‘in their fingers’ and not dependent on pedals or amps. Larry Carlton is certainly one of them. He played some of the great guitar of the 1970s with Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, his sound characterised by a deceptively ‘sweet’ take on the blues, alongside elements of jazz and rock. In the early ’80s, he released some fine studio solo albums including Sleepwalk and Friends, but ’87’s Last Nite was his first official live release.

And what an album. In 1987, I was a big fan of his playing on Steely Dan’s albums but had never heard any of his solo stuff. A glowing review of Last Nite in Q Magazine sent me scuttling off to my local Our Price. Recorded on 17th February 1986 at the Baked Potato club in North Hollywood (good old YouTube has preserved some of the gig for posterity – see below), the album is Larry uncut, blowing on a mixture of originals and jazz standards, with no thought of commercial or airplay potential.

It’s hard to think of another guitarist who could cover such a stylistic range with such aplomb. He destroys the slow blues, tears up the fast Texas-style shuffle, delivers some deliciously ‘out’ fusion on the title track and swings his ass off on ‘All Blues and ‘So What’, though with a pleasingly piercing tone as opposed to the warm sound favoured by most ‘jazz’ players. He’s also endlessly melodic, producing memorable phrase after memorable phrase. But don’t be fooled by the beatific expression and cream jacket – he isn’t afraid of throwing in some pretty wacky modal curveballs too.

Another key aspect of Last Nite is Carlton’s band. He uses the cream of the LA studio scene – John ‘JR’ Robinson on drums, Abe Laboriel on bass, Alex Acuna on percussion – and brings them right out of their comfort zone. Apparently they didn’t know ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ were on the setlist until Larry called them. JR in particular is a revelation, sounding like he’s been cooped up in the studio for far too long. And who knew he could swing like he does on the jazz cuts. Keyboard player Terry Trotter also impresses with his rich voicings and empathetic accompaniment.

Sadly, Last Nite turns out to be a bit of an anomaly in Larry’s discography, marking the beginning of an era when he was veering more and more towards a much smoother studio sound. But he’s always ripped it up in the live arena and he’ll be back on the road in July. I will try to get along to his London gig and pay my respects to a master.

West Coast Bliss: Lee Ritenour’s Rit 2

ritenourSequels are seldom a good idea in the movie business, and thankfully they’re a lot less prevalent in the music game. But one of the most successful ‘franchises’ of the ’80s was guitarist Lee Ritenour’s Rit/Rit 2 combo, now re-released by Cherry Red on a single CD, and they’re two of the best-sounding albums of the era. Of course that shouldn’t be a huge surprise when you notice the presence of names such as Humberto Gatica, David Foster, Harvey Mason, Jeff Porcaro, Jerry Hey, Abe Laboriel, Alex Acuna and Greg Philinganes on the song credits, but then again a lot of albums at that time featured all the right ‘names’ but didn’t deliver the goods.

LEE RITENOUR rit rit 2

But if 1982’s Rit 2 is not quite in the same league as its predecessor, it’s still another classic piece of sumptuously-produced, blissed-out West Coast AOR with touches of jazz and soul, helped by the excellent vocals, keyboards and songwriting of Eric Tagg. To these ears, it sounds as if Quincy Jones had produced Toto and got a good singer and a few decent songwriters in.

Promises Promises‘ is superior disco/funk/rock and wouldn’t sound out of place on Quincy’s The Dude or Jacko’s Thriller. ‘Dreamwalkin‘ is kind of the ‘happy’ version of Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘After The Love Has Gone‘ and would make a great theme song for a an early-’80s, California-set Chevy Chase/Goldie Hawn vehicle. Ditto ‘Keep It Alive’.

‘Tied Up’ and ‘Voices’ initially seem like standard AOR fare, but reveal their superiority with interesting, layered vocal arrangements and surprising chord changes (and a classic bit of Porcaro drums on the latter). But the real standout is killer instrumental ‘Road Runner’ featuring Harvey Mason’s incredibly intricate hi-hat work, a spicy Jerry Hey horn arrangement, some tasty Fender Rhodes from Philinganes and a corking set of solos from Ritenour.

Ritenour tried to repeat the formula on ’84’s less successful Banded Together before embarking on a decade of underwhelming instrumental smooth jazz with the occasional high point (like this). But Rit and Rit 2 are classics of their kind and belong alongside Steely’s Gaucho, Randy Crawford’s Secret Combination, Quincy’s The Dude, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and George Benson’s Give Me The Night as key albums of the era.

Time for that long-delayed trip to the West Coast – Malibu beckons…

Story Of A Song: Chaka Khan’s ‘And The Melody Still Lingers On’

Jazz regained some ground in the ’80s. After a chastening period in the late-’60s and ’70s when rock pretty much swept all before it, major labels took a renewed interest in established jazz acts and underground movements flourished (no wave, acid jazz, harmolodic funk, neo-bop). Wynton Marsalis, Miles, Courtney Pine and Loose Tubes even put jazz back on primetime TV.

But when Chaka Khan recorded ‘And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)’, the dramatic centrepiece of her What Cha’Gonna Do For Me album, she arguably set the whole revival in motion.

Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan

Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan, Atlantic Studios 1981

It was producer Arif Mardin’s idea, his mind wandering during a flight between New York and LA. The album was one song short – so how about a tribute to the bebop masters of the ’40s using the crème de la crème of the early ’80s soul/R’n’B/jazz session players? They could use Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli’s 1942 bebop classic ‘A Night In Tunisia’ as a template.

Chaka loved the idea. Mardin hoped to find a lyricist but deadlines were pending so he tackled it himself with Chaka adding the final touches. Mardin made a demo of the arrangement which cheekily inserted Charlie Parker’s famous 1946 alto break.

Charlie Parker in 1946, photo by Ted Giola

Charlie Parker in 1946, photo by Ted Giola

A lengthy chart was quickly made up (resembling a ‘Chinese laundry list written in cuneiform’, according to Mardin) which included eight spare bars for the insertion of the Parker lick. The musicians – Casey Scheuerell on drums, David Foster and Ronnie Foster (no relation) on keys, Abe Laboriel on bass – were booked and smashed the tune in one take.

Herbie Hancock later contributed a brilliant synth solo. Chaka then added her sublime vocals. Her four-part big-band harmonies and spine-tingling ad-libs bring the song right up to date.

But there was still space for an opening head melody and a solo in the final verse. Dizzy had been sent the demo by Mardin with a note asking him to contribute. But the bebop legend replied that he would be on tour and so couldn’t make the recording session – but he suddenly arrived two days before the album’s mastering date at New York’s Atlantic Studios to add his part. The track was complete.

Chaka and Mardin attempted to repeat the trick a few years later with ‘Bebop Medley‘ but it lacked the finesse of this timeless classic.