If veteran session guitarist Larry Carlton's Sapphire Blue (Bluebird, 2004) was a first shot at the bow of those who'd written him off as too smooth, Fire Wire is a veritable volley. Sapphire Blue found Carlton in a more energetic, blues-based context, but his trademark singing tone still spoke the language of jazz. Leaving all such references behind, Fire Wire is more rock instrumental than jazz fusionand the rawest album he's made in his forty-year career.
The laid-back minor blues of "The Prince" is a respite from the energy of the rest of the record. Carlton restricts himself to acoustic guitar and demonstrates, once again, his debt to legendary bluesman B.B. King. "Inkblot 11," on the other hand, is a flat-out, pedal-to-the-metal rocker. Even the inclusion of the Sapphire Blue Horn Section does little to soften the wide-legged rock stance of Carlton's gritty tone and searing lines.
Carlton's writing on Fire Wire is his most direct, least complicated to date. Complex harmonies are nowhere to be found, nor are there any odd bars to break up the pulsing rock groove of songs like the four-to-the-floor "Double Cross." His language may be simpler, but his ability to squeeze the most out of every bend, and phrase in ways that maximize every note, keeps Fire Wire in context with the rest of his nearly two dozen solo records. If Blow by Blow (Epic, 1975) proved Jeff Beck's ability to transfer his visceral rock style into a jazz fusion setting, Fire Wire shows Carlton's ability to move in an opposite direction. The changes are simpler, but Carlton remains ever an inventive player, even when speaking in those terms.
The head-banging "Big Trouble" is a blues-based track that might fit into fellow session player Robben Ford's repertoire, but Carlton's rough power chords and the Sapphire Blue Horn Section's forceful lines make it harder-edged than even Ford's work with the collaborative Jing Chi.
Still, despite the potency of the majority of these ten tracks, Carlton also knows how to pace things, as with "Goodbye," his gentle take on Americanain many ways similar to Bill Frisell's approach to the traditional "Shenandoah" on Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch, 1999). But while Frisell is never anything less than completely and equally honest, Carlton possesses none of his idiosyncratic quirkiness, making "Goodbye" more direct and to the point.
The core quartet's other members, drummer Matt Chamberlain, bassist Michael Rhodes and keyboardist Jeff Babko, get little solo space. Still, they're the perfect rhythm sectionloose and responsive when required, tight and completely in synch behind Carlton elsewhere.
One could argue that by moving away from the smooth leanings of his more recent work, Carlton runs the risk of alienating a core fan group. But anyone who's followed Carlton's forty-year career knows that his tastes run wide. On first glance Fire Wire may appear to be an anomaly, but given Carlton's ever-present less-is-more approach, its raw lyricism and avoidance of excess place it completely in context.
Personnel: Larry Carlton: guitars; Matt Chamberlain: drums; Michael Rhodes: bass; Jeff Babko: keyboards; The Sapphire Blue Horn Section: horns, featuring Mark Douthit: saxophone; Barry Green: trombone; Doug Moffet: baritone sax; Mike Haynes: trumpet.