It was not a heavyweight evening of music but guitarist Earl Klugh’s Friday night concert was a showcase of craftsmanship with its own set of charms.
Drawing on an impeccable technique, a picture-perfect smile, and the considerable instrumental prowess of his backing musicians, Klugh gave the audience what it wanted and then added a bit more, including an encore that left his fans sated and appreciative.
Klugh is a unique musical individual in many respects. He reveres the versatile aspects of country legend Chet Atkins and Brazilian guitarists like Joao Gilberto and Baden Powell but made his greatest commercial success with material that floats closer to the “smooth jazz” label.
Where most jazz guitarists play on steel strings, Klugh hews to a nylon string aesthetic, one that places an emphasis on subtlety more than power. Modern electronics allow him to propel that subtlety to the top of the group sound without diminishing the beauty of his playing.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate what Klugh does is to hear him in a solo context. At the halfway point of the concert, after treating the audience to a few selections from his back catalog (including an arresting take on “Last Song”), the band sat out while the guitarist picked his way through Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” songs that expose other influences that have shaped Klugh’s style.
When the band members rejoined the leader, they whipped through a number of songs from Klugh’s past, including “Vonetta” and “Living Inside Your Love,” the tune that he introduced as the one that “gave me a career”.
By this point in the 90-minute program, the band was beginning to loosen up and things started to accelerate. The musicians began taking solos while their leader opted to step back and let his players display their talents.
Drummer Ron Otis broke out of the pack with a solo that had scattered pockets in the audience standing up and applauding. Then saxophonist Elan Trotman, who had been acting as the alternate instrumental voice in the mix, began whipping off a few phrases that perked up some ears.
Bassist Al Turner, who appeared to be the band’s music director, thumped his mutant six-string bass before keyboard maven David Lee Spradley (whose résumé includes stints with Aretha Franklin and the George Clinton-led Funkadelic and Parliament projects) helped propel a lengthy take on “Dr. Macumba,” perhaps the funkiest batch of riffs to be heard all evening.
In some ways, the gradual buildup of musical tension that developed over the course of the show was kind of surprising because the “smooth jazz” label doesn’t necessarily imply excitement; an auditory cruise or a sonic autopilot would be a more apt description for much of that genre. In the end, it just points out that Earl Klugh can break out of a pigeonhole and fly in any direction he feels like going.