Yet another artist finds himself on a new label and the experience refreshes and reinvigorates. Earlier this year it was Mike Stern and late last year it was Terence Blanchard; in the case of guitarist Larry Carlton, he has signed with one of the few remaining majors that is not afraid to let its artists have full creative control. Bluebird/BMG is, of course, the label that has given Dave Douglas complete artistic latitude and now, with Sapphire Blue, Carlton, while a more mainstream artist, is able to leave behind the smooth jazz label that he has been affiliated with for far too long. As the title suggests, this is an album of blues, something Carlton has wanted to do for some time.
With his trademark sweet singing sound, Carlton could play a nursery rhyme and make it drip with emotion. For this record Carlton has surrounded himself with a crack team of players that includes ex-Dave Holland Quintet drummer Billy Kilson, Lyle Lovett alumnus and session man Matt Rollings, ace session players Michael Rhodes on bass, Reese Wynan on B-3 organ and Terry McMillan on harmonica, plus a horn section led by veteran saxophonist Jim Horn. Sapphire Blue demonstrates the incredible versatility of the finest session players, and has a group sound that bristles with energy and interplay.
The album kicks off with "Friday Night Shuffle," which, while demonstrating a clear allegiance to B.B. King, also incorporates Carlton's more jazzy disposition. Carlton has always been at his best when straddling styles, as evidenced by his work with Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell. And he makes every note, every bend count; for someone who is as technically precise as Carlton there is no shortage of looseness, grease and grit.
"A Pair of Kings" continues the homage, but it is only when Carlton hits the darker "Night Sweats" that he begins to really assert his own personal take on the blues. With changes that would tax a more traditional player, Carlton subtly asserts his broader harmonic knowledge. Still, in the same way that Robben Ford approaches blues with a jazz sensibility, Carlton sounds nothing less than completely at home and totally authentic. And by playing with time by alternating one bar of 7/4 with four bars of 4/4, he makes "7 For You" a track that demonstrates the best of what he is about; somewhat less-than-traditional changes that, nevertheless, fit the overall concept of the record.
It's a pleasure to see Carlton put out an uncompromising record that represents what he truly wants to do after all those years of smooth jazz. Hopefully his affiliation with Bluebird/BMG will be a longstanding one, and Sapphire Blue will be but the first of a string of entertaining albums that go straight to the heart.
Track Listing: Friday Night Shuffle; A Pair of Kings; Night Sweats; Sapphire Blue; 7 For You; Slightly Dirty; Just an Excuse; Take Me Down
Personnel: Larry Carlton (guitar), Michael Rhodes (bass), Bill Kilson (drums), Matt Rollings (Fender Rhodes), Reese Wynan (B-3 organ), Terry McMillan (harmonica), Erik Darken (percussion), Steve Patrick (trumpet), Chris Dunn (trombone), Mark Douthit(tenor sax & solos), Jim Horn (baritone sax, horn arrangements)