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Jazz Guitarist Earl Klugh Returns To San Diego After 10 Years

Jazz guitarist Earl Klugh plays his acoustic guitar on stage.
Chuck Bigger
Jazz guitarist Earl Klugh plays his acoustic guitar on stage.

Encore broadcast that originally aired on July 16, 2009

Jazz Guitarist Earl Klugh Returns to San Diego After 10 Years
Grammy-award winning jazz guitarist Earl Klugh has been performing for over 30 years. His distinct musical style blends classical guitar, Latin music, soul and jazz. He has recorded more than 30 albums and worked alongside Chet Atkins, Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder. Earl Klugh joins us to discuss his musical inspiration and his upcoming show at Anthology.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Jazz guitarist Earl Klugh is a man who never had to learn how to sing, because he learned how to make his guitar sing for him. His acoustic guitar playing has been earning him awards for the past 30-plus years, including a Grammy and 12 Grammy nominations. He's collaborated and recorded with many music stars through the years, including Chet Atkins, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. His latest album, "The Spice of Life," was nominated for a Grammy as Best Pop Instrumental Album. He's returned to San Diego after a 10 year absence for two shows this weekend at the club Anthology. It is my pleasure to welcome Earl Klugh to These Days. Hi, Earl.

EARL KLUGH (Musician): Hi. How are you doing?


CAVANAUGH: I'm doing great. Earl, why did you stay away from San Diego so long?

KLUGH: Nobody booked me here.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, they must be crazy.

KLUGH: Ah, it – You know, sometimes it kind of works that way. You know, I had a long hiatus from Minneapolis, too, for some reason, you know, but we're still carrying on. We're traveling.

CAVANAUGH: Well, before we begin our conversation, why don't we hear you play a song? This one's called "Venezuelan Nights." It's from your most recent album, "The Spice of Life." And here's guitarist, Earl Klugh.


(audio of Earl Klugh playing "Venezuelan Nights")

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. That was Earl Klugh performing a tune called "Venezuelan Nights" from his most recent album, "The Spice of Life." And performing it right here in the KPBS studio. I wonder, Earl, what was the inspiration for that song? That's your own composition, right?


CAVANAUGH: And what's behind that?

KLUGH: Oh, it's – I'm just a real fan of South American folk music and semi-classical music and I spent a couple of years anyway really learning a lot of that repertoire and understanding the various things that go into a piece like that, you know. And quite honestly, you know, I have a hard time memorizing other people's music so I just – it's easier for me to write my own pieces. So that's pretty much the – the whole story there.

CAVANAUGH: You found a way around that.

KLUGH: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: Now I wonder, what's the difference between the usual jazz style of playing the guitar and this more classical style?

KLUGH: Well, the only thing I can speak on with that is, you know, I started on the piano. And so I was used to hearing like bass notes, chords and melody. And when I started playing guitar, I wanted to replicate that as much as possible on the guitar. And I had a large array of great guitarists at the time, George Van Eps, Chet Atkins, Johnny Smith, a lot of people who really played the whole guitar. Kenny Burrell, just a wide variety of artists who really approached the guitar in a unique way. And I sort of adapted what I could from all of their styles.

CAVANAUGH: And, as I say, how'd you pick up this more classical style, though?

KLUGH: It was just from studying the classical music, the scores of some of those great composers like Barry Oates and some of the great masters, you know.

CAVANAUGH: And you used a phrase just a minute ago that's very interesting. 'Played the whole guitar,' what does that mean?

KLUGH: Okay, that – Okay, what that means is I'm playing two or more parts at once. You know, the melody, the harmonies. Playing finger style allows you to do that. When you play with a pick, it's somewhat harder even though the really great plectrum players like Johnny Smith and some of the others, they can really emulate so much with their pick, it's amazing. But what I'm doing is simply just reproducing what a pianist would do, you know, like… (audio demonstration) The left hand, you know, it just – you know, if you're a jazz player…


KLUGH: …a piano player, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And does it matter – is it important what kind of guitar you're using?

KLUGH: Oh, for me it is, yeah. I'm not very keen for my own playing, to hear myself play a jazz electric guitar. It just doesn't jibe with my ear. I don't think there's anything – You know, there are a lot of players that I really love to hear play that way. Wes Montgomery was a beautiful player. I go back again to Kenny Burrell or even people like Grant Green, you know, just – But me, it's always been the classical guitar, always that acoustic sound.

CAVANAUGH: You know, you gave us a little taste there. We just – we have to have more, Earl. You're going to perform another song for us now. It's one of your most popular tunes from way back in 1979, and it's one of your favorite compositions. Why don't you tell us a little bit – before you play "Heartstring," tell us a little bit about what it's all about.

KLUGH: Oh, well, this was – I think this was my fifth album. And it was going to be the first album that I produced of my own. You know, I wanted to take a stab at it, and I wrote all of these songs. And I wanted an album that was kind of conceptual in nature being that there would be a lot of elements that would come together throughout the record. And one of the things that I knew going into the record, I'd written this piece and we recorded the piece, the first song on the piece with piano, bass, drums, electric guitar, and myself. And I wanted to do something orchestral at the end with the same melody so you have to have a pretty strong composition that could be played up tempo and also, too, as a ballad. So that was really, you know, that was the piece that I composed, "Heartstring." And it worked very well because I remember – I'm a big fan of movies when I was a kid and I used to love the big orchestrations and everything in the movie and how things would be played over and over again. So I took my stab at that with this particular song and my first effort into trying to do something that was a little bit against the grain of what the record company was looking for. You know, I just – I had started selling enough records where I'm going to do what I wanted to do one time, and it worked.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Earl Klugh's going to play for us a bit from "Heartstring" right now here on KPBS.


(audio of Klugh playing "Heartstring")

CAVANAUGH: That's Earl Klugh performing one of his best known songs "Heartstring" here for us on KPBS. And you told us a little bit about the story of how you came up with this composition but it's on an album that is completely dedicated to love and romance, is that right?

KLUGH: Yeah, pretty much, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: You – It's featured, you know, in the bestselling book, "1001 Ways to be Romantic."

KLUGH: Yeah, I saw that. That's a very interesting thing to have happen, I guess. That's a good thing.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, take Earl Klugh along for your romantic evening. We're going to take a short break, Earl, and when we come back we'll talk about your most recent album, "The Spice of Life," and the fact that you and your quartet are going to be performing at Anthology. That's tomorrow night and again on Saturday night. So we'll take a short break, be back and hear more from Earl Klugh here on These Days on KPBS.


CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is famed jazz guitarist Earl Klugh and he is here in San Diego to perform this weekend at the club Anthology. And, Earl, we heard a little bit from your past with "Heartstring," but your latest album, "Spice of Life," covers such a wide range of musical styles and sounds. Why did you call it "The Spice of Life?"

KLUGH: Because it's a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now your previous album, "Naked Guitar," was just solo guitar.


CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, did you miss working with a band?

KLUGH: No, no, because, you know, I spend so much time playing by myself that's the most natural thing to me. I tell you what, though, when you make a record and it's just you playing, you know, I get a little self-conscious about that because I'm like, boy, I don't know who's going to listen to it, you know. But it worked out fine.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, it did.

KLUGH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And so now you've got the band back and you've got all of these musical styles. Give us an idea of the kind of range "The Spice of Life" has on it.

KLUGH: Well, it goes from like the "Venezuelan Nights" all the way from like the kind of folk/classic type of thing, all the way to a song that I wrote called "Snap," which is a kind of up-tempo R&B type of thing. And I was also very fortunate to get back in touch with a very old friend of mine from the early days even with Wes Montgomery, Don Sebesky, who has done a wide range of great recordings for people like Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock. He's a great orchestrator. He worked on about half of the album with me. And also my good friend Hubert Laws came into New York and played in the orchestra. So there's a good range. Also, my band played on many of the tracks as well. And it just had – for me, it just had a little bit of everything so that's why I called it "The Spice of Life."

CAVANAUGH: And just to show the range, not only is it new compositions that you've just come out with but we're also going to hear a song – you're going to play us a song from it called "Canadian Sunset." Now this is something of an old standard, isn't it?

KLUGH: Yes, absolutely it is.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about it.

KLUGH: It was, believe it or not, when my mom bought a piano for both me and my brother—I was the only one who ended up playing—but it was her idea that we should at least have an instrument in the house to at least see who would play it and I really wanted a guitar but I had the piano so I made the best of it and the thing that I remember is the song "Canadian Sunset" because it had the repetitious bass line, you know the – And so I crawl up to the piano and I try to duplicate this bass line, you know…


KLUGH: …because I was like four years old. And it stuck with me so after 30-some albums, you know, I had this idea to try to play "Canadian Sunset" on the guitar. And it worked and it was received very well and it was, I think, a really good recording of it. A interesting thing happened to me. We were playing in Atlanta and I played the song live, this was before the record was coming out. And so afterward I was signing a couple of autographs and this person was standing back there and he was looking nervous. And I said, well, come on up, what are you – You know. He says, well, you're not going to believe this. I said, well, what? What? And he says, well, you know the song you played "Canadian Sunset?" I say, yeah. He says, well, he says, my father wrote that song…


KLUGH: …back in the fifties. And it was – the father's name was Eddie Heywood and this was his son. And I couldn't believe it, you know, and so I got his – and he was living in Atlanta, same as me, so I have his phone number and everything. Last year we did a show at Chastain Park in Atlanta, and he brought his family again, so it's just wild, you know. Just one of those meant to be type of things, you know.

CAVANAUGH: It sure is.

KLUGH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: That is a good story.

KLUGH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Earl Klugh, playing for us "Canadian Sunset."

(audio of Klugh playing "Canadian Sunset")

CAVANAUGH: That's "Canadian Sunset" performed by Earl Klugh. You know, Earl, I don't think I'm ever going to get that image out of my mind now of four-year-old Earl on the piano working out the bass line to "Canadian Sunset." I think I'll hear that – I'll see that all the time I hear that music.


CAVANAUGH: And speaking of you as a young guitarist, when you transitioned from the piano to the guitar, you did that largely because you saw Chet Atkins playing the guitar without having to sing.

KLUGH: Right. That's – He was on a Perry Como show. I was sitting there with my mom. I remember the year and the month. It was January and it was 1967. And here was the guy, you know, he comes out and he plays. And I'm like, wow, he's playing a melody and a bass and all of the harmony and he doesn't have to sing because I couldn't sing. And I said, well, I'm going to really try to do that. And so I talked my mom into taking me to the record store the next day and I bought a couple of Chet Atkins albums and the rest pretty much, for me, is history. I was just locked in on that.

CAVANAUGH: And you learned how to play guitar by listening to records and picking it out on the guitar, finding the music, right?

KLUGH: Yeah, yeah. You know, it's – it was before everything we have now. You know, it was just a thirty-three and a third record and I had a Silvertone record player. So I would just listen to what Chet was playing and I'd move the needle back and I'd sit there for hours.


KLUGH: Every day, you know, six, eight – You know, weekends, you know, I'd do it all day until it was time to go to sleep.

CAVANAUGH: That is amazing. No wonder you like playing the…

KLUGH: It's sick is what it is.

CAVANAUGH: …guitar by yourself. I'm wondering, we had a caller who couldn't stay on the line but wanted to know, do you make transcriptions of your music?

KLUGH: You know, I don't personally do it because it's time consuming, but I have a couple of friends who really enjoy doing that and we're starting to put together some transcriptions for sure.

CAVANAUGH: Great. Now we don't have a lot of time left, so just let me ask you, you know, you've had a 30-plus career, what – 30-plus year career.


CAVANAUGH: What is it that you still want to accomplish? I mean, what – is there anything that you say, yeah, that's still something I want to do. I want to play there, or I want to play with this person or what are your goals?

KLUGH: Oh, wow. I tell you, just to keep doing what I'm doing. I really enjoy some of the things that we've been doing lately because in my earlier career it was all about making the record and touring the record. But now I get a chance, you know, we work with a lot of student orchestras around the country. We did one up in Washington state actually a few months ago, the same thing we did in Detroit, my old hometown. And I'm starting to do some solo shows and just completely jazz trio shows, just doing what I do but trying to stretch the boundaries a little bit and have a lot of fun doing it, as well.

CAVANAUGH: And you'll be performing at Anthology, as I said, tomorrow…

KLUGH: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …night and Saturday night. Who will you be performing with?

KLUGH: Well, it's going to be my normal band. We've stripped it down a little bit to a quartet. There's a couple of guys who aren't going to be here, but we have David Lee on keyboards, and he's a former member of the Funkadelics and he's been in my band for probably eighteen years now. Al Turner on bass, who's a great bassist. He also, when he's not working with me, he works with people like Bob James and Aretha Franklin. And Ron Otis on drums, and he also, he works with the R&B sensation Kim. So we're going to have a lot of fun over there over the next couple of nights. We have the one show, and two shows on Saturday, I think, so it's going to be fun.

CAVANAUGH: And that's Earl Klugh and his quartet performing at Anthology tomorrow night and again on Saturday night. And I know that you're going to be playing us out and I'm looking forward to it. It's a track called "Baya." But if you don't mind, I have some housekeeping to do…

KLUGH: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: …before we get there. I don't want to talk over you. I want to tell everyone that These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Pat Finn, Josette Herdell, Sharon Heilbrunn and senior producer Natalie Walsh. Production manager is Kurt Kohnen with technical assistance from Tim Felton. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicket (sp) and Jackie Cading (sp). And the executive producer of these days is John Decker. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and I hope you enjoy the rest of the week. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS. And here's Earl Klugh with "Baya."

(audio of Earl Klugh playing "Baya")