Smooth but not somnambulant: the fingerpicking glide of Earl Klugh

Earl Klugh in a performance on the Merv Griffin Show from the late 1980s.

The first time I ever heard the name Earl Klugh, he was being introduced from the stage by keyboardist Chick Corea at a little club on the campus of the University of Washington way back in 1974. It was a bizarre juxtaposition: At that point, Corea had whole-heartedly tumbled into progressive jazz-rock with Return to Forever, and as he, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White blazed through RTF tunes such as “Theme to the Mothership” and “Captain Senor Mouse,” this slight, shy, teenaged guitarist was doing his best to keep up.

But Corea — whose bipolar musical straddle eventually led him to form two other groups known as The Elektric Band and The Akoustic Trio — was deliberately forfeiting some of RTF’s customary pyrotechnics for a chance to unveil this precocious fingerpicker to a wider audience.

Midway through the concert, he explained that Klugh was new to the group and not even really an electric guitarist, then ceded the spotlight to the kid — whose whole demeanor transformed when a roadie handed him his six-string acoustic instrument. With the bassist Clarke occasionally chiming in, Klugh proceeded to transfix a room full of rock-oriented college students with a song or two of quiet but agile alchemy on the guitar.

34 years later, style is still there
Thirty-four years later, Klugh has inevitably added depth and versatility to that youthful prowess, but his basic style and sensibility haven’t really changed.

“I loved the classical guitar growing up, just loved the sound of it. I started on piano but when I went to fingerstyle on a nylon-string guitar — I never used a pick — I knew early on what I was going to do,” Klugh said by phone between stops on a tour with his quintet that will take him to the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant Sunday and Monday nights, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

“Growing up in Detroit, I got enough Motown and r&b hanging around with my friends. But it was hearing people like Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery, and that Latin influence with Jobim and Charlie Byrd and Bola Sete; that to me was real guitar, just beautiful music.”

It was that melodic, south-of-the-border flavor that drew him to the original Return to Forever, which included Brazilians Flora Purim and Airto. The owner of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge allowed the under-aged Klugh in to see the music, which is how he connected with Corea. Klugh laughs when the Seattle gig is mentioned, relating that it was his second show with Return to Forever, and that he was added with almost no notice or rehearsal after Bill Connors dropped out of the group.

Corea’s call wasn’t even Klugh’s breakthrough: He’d already played on a Yusef Lateef record at age 15, and done admirable work as a second guitarist on George Benson’s “White Rabbit” album two years later in 1971. By the time he began releasing records under his own name in 1976, he was becoming part of a commercially successful wave of a pop-jazz-r&b amalgam derided as Muzak by straight-ahead jazz lovers. In retrospect, the real crime committed by that late ’70s boomlet wasn’t that it dumbed down the talents of undeniably creative musicians such as Ron Carter, David Sanborn and Grover Washington Jr. (and Klugh, of course); it was that it presaged the even soggier arrangements and more somnambulant songs under the rubric of “smooth jazz.”

Not part of ‘smooth jazz’ movement
Klugh doesn’t mince words when disassociating himself from that “smooth jazz” designation. “I never considered myself a part of that movement in any way shape or form,” he declares. “What happened is we came along at a time when people were embracing electronic elements while still staying musical. That is where I took my cue. I have been pretty fortunate by not trying to analyze what would sell but following my heart in an honest direction for me.”

Maybe he doth protest too much, but in any case, the differences in his music have always been less about Klugh than the songs and cohorts with which he surrounds himself. And the material from the middle and later stages of his career are more satisfying as a result. Highlights from his catalog — which have generated 11 Grammy nominations — include the tropical-oriented “Midnight In San Juan” with pianist Elaine Elias and harmonic players Toots Thielemans; a bebop-drenched disc entitled “The Earl Klugh Trio, Part 1;” and, tellingly, two records of Klugh by his lonesome, “Solo Guitar” and “Naked Guitar.”

His latest, “The Spice of Life,” is another solid effort, featuring 10  Klugh originals (including tributes to mentor-guitarists Wes Montgomery and Antonio Lauro) and a trio of covers that include a sprightly take on Thelonious Monk’s “Bye Ya” and a beguiling rendition of title song from the movie “My Foolish Heart.” While the record includes arrangements by noted producer Don Sebesky, and guest stars such as flautist Hubert Laws, the songs are equally amenable to relatively downsized scale of Klugh’s touring quintet.

Songs written for a trio
“I wrote the songs for a trio and we spent a year before the recording playing them on the road. Don [Sebesky] came in afterward and added his arrangements. So we’ll do a lot of stuff from the new record, and then of course we’ll pick stuff from the other albums we’ve done over the years. I try to mix it up and switch out the older material pretty regularly, but we always give a good representation of [all of] my music.”

It’s a fine band, which includes a keyboardist who once played for Parliament-Funkadelic (David Lee) in a veteran, simpatico rhythm section. But it’s pretty safe to say that the most memorable moments will come when Klugh is cradling his guitar and lost in the strum and pluck of one of his gorgeously evocative, trademark solos.

It is a style inspired by Chet Atkins, who showed Klugh that acoustic guitar “could be played like a complete instrument, like a piano,” and pianist Bill Evans, “who always implied the root of the chord, and soloed in single notes and triads and eighth notes, which allowed me to gain an understanding of his harmonic structure. Those are the two who really opened my eyes to the possibilities of playing like I knew I wanted to play,” Klugh says. “The rest was just trial and error and patience.”

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