Michael Landau: The Guitarist's Guitarist

Jim Worsley BY

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For me it comes down to making every note count and making every note heard.
"He is the best guitarist in the world," states guitarist and Grammy winner Steve Lukather. Indeed, Michael Landau is an important figure in the modern era and one of the most widely respected guitar players on the planet.

Landau made his mark as an A list session player in the '80s and '90s. He has, perhaps, recorded on more records than any other guitarist in history. I did say perhaps. I don't believe that category is in the Guinness Book of World Records. Suffice to say that he was, and is, in high demand by a multitude of artists in an impressive array of genres.

As a solo artist with his own band(s), or as a sideman for industry giants, Landau's meticulous approach for perfection is matched only by his fierce and highly charged axe artistry. A virtuoso of equal aplomb in jazz, blues, and rock, he is a relentless explorer and deft inventor of sound, composition, and tonality. The master was kind enough to take a break from his busy schedule and share some insights and stories.

All About Jazz: First off, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. As time is indeed a precious commodity, perhaps we can dive right in and you can tell us about your recent European tour.

Michael Landau: Thanks very much Jim. I appreciate it as well. The European tour went well. I have a new record out called Rock Bottom that came out just as the European dates started. The band we toured with is a new project for me. It's called the Liquid Quartet. We have Andy Hess on bass, Ian Thomas on drums, and my old pal from the Burning Water days, David Frazee on vocals and guitar. I'd been wanting to reunite with David for some time now, and the record is a departure from all of the instrumental music I've been playing for the past ten years with my trio and the Steve Gadd Band. This new record is definitely a rocker. We played mostly clubs and small theaters all around Europe. The tour lasted about four weeks total.

AAJ: The first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the name Michael Landau is your distinctive tone that is truly organic, to borrow your own terminology. It is free of processing and gimmickry. Could you expand a bit on the making of, and importance of, this real and honest feel?

ML: When I was doing a lot of sessions in the '80s, it was the time of heavily processed guitar sounds using big guitar racks. The tone I get these days is more reminiscent of the music I grew up on The Beatles, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Cream. I guess you could say that my tone starting with Burning Water in the early '90s was a bit of a backlash from the 80's tones. But the 80's tones did have their place in time. I'm really drawn these days to more of a big, pure tube amp tone. For me it comes down to making every note count and making every note heard. I still like using delays, but I use them as more of a radical effect opposed to a wash of sound.

AAJ: You have had the opportunity of playing with James Taylor for about a quarter of a century now. That's a long-ass gig! My wife and I caught up with the tour one beautiful night at the Hollywood Bowl. It would seem like a dream gig. Is it? You must have some special moments and memories.

ML: The years are flying by at this point. But yes, it is a dream gig, and I've always loved touring and recording with Mr. Taylor. His music might seem simple to play but it's actually challenging in the sense that you really have to respect the voicing in his music. It's definitely a lesson in restraint, something I think the musical world needs more of these days. He's a kind, brilliant man, with a twisted sense of humor. He is very inspiring to be around. At this point it's really one big family on the road, as we've all been doing it so long. It's all music and no drama. In 2008 I was on the road with James and I was turning fifty years old on that tour. I ran into James on the morning of my birthday at a coffee shop in North Carolina. I mentioned that it was my birthday that day but to please not tell anyone. I like to stay under the radar on days like that. Thankfully I made it through dinner that night at catering without a cake and the birthday song. But that night on the gig we were about three songs into the set, and JT starts singing "Happy Birthday" to me in between songs. Of course the crowd of 18,000 jumped right in and sang along. James turned toward me and gave me a big sarcastic smile. He has a very dry sense of humor. I admire him in every way. I still get choked up when we play "Fire and Rain." It's such a beautiful moment in the show. Time stands still for that short while.

AAJ: Names like B.B. King, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Glenn Frey, Roger Daltrey, and Miles Davis barely scratch the surface of the list of legendary and superb musicians you have recorded and/or toured with in your career. Do you ever just sit back and breathe it all in? You know, as in to pinch yourself and just say, "Wow, did all that really happen?" It must be magical, and a huge sense of accomplishment at the same time.

ML: Yes, I'm very thankful for all the opportunities I've had over the years to work with such great artists. The older I get I appreciate it even more. The '80s and '90s were really the heyday for session players of my generation. Part of it was being at the right place at the right time, but at the same time I've always been so passionate about all things guitar that I know that I would have pursued music even if I hadn't started working with all those artists. I'm definitely a one trick pony. It is satisfying though when I look back over the years. Good times were definitely had. To be able to work with an artist like Joni Mitchell or James Taylor has been a real eye opener for me.

AAJ: I have had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing you perform many times. One such occasion was with the Steve Gadd Band at the Catalina Jazz Club. Just how cool is it to play with those cats?

ML: I'm so very proud every time I get on stage with that band. Steve Gadd and the guys (bassist Jimmy Johnson, trumpeter Walt Fowler, and keyboardist Larry Goldings round out the band) are absolute masters of their instruments. We always put the music and the groove first with that band. It has to sound good, and feel good, if you know what I mean. I've been fortunate enough to play with so many great drummers over the years. I can truly say that no one plays like Gadd. The way he mixes himself within a song and the dynamics he uses are so brilliant.

AAJ: A Jazz Ministry performance at the Baked Potato was also very special and memorable. Can we keep our fingers crossed for another Jazz Ministry reunion?

ML: That's another band I'm always proud to be on stage with. The two Laboriels (bassist Abe Laboriel and his son Abe Laboriel, Jr. on drums) together with the father-son thing is such a beautiful thing to see and hear. And Greg Mathieson(keyboards) is such a groove monster. We don't play that much these days because Abe Jr. is always out with Sir Paul. But I'm sure at some point it will happen again and most likely at the ole' Baked Potato in North Hollywood.

AAJ: About a million years ago my wife and I went to see guitarist Gary Hoey. There was an opening act that we had never heard of called the Raging Honkies. After you blew the roof off the Belly Up Tavern in San Diego we most definitely knew who you were. It is common knowledge that the drummer,(Abe Jr.), has been wearing his hi-hat with Paul McCartney for several years now. It must have been fun playing with the bassist, also known as your brother Teddy, again on your new record. Tell us more about Rock Bottom.

ML: I love the way Teddy plays bass. He's such a natural on the instrument. He doesn't play bass that much these days, but when he picks up the instrument he's a total bad ass on it. He's very much a meat and potatoes player. He has no interest in bass solos or flashy playing. Teddy is all attitude and his tone is big with a lot of balls. He played a vintage Harmony bass with flatwound strings on most of the record. Teddy also writes great bass lines. The songs "Gettin Old" and "Squirrels" both started from bass riffs that he'd written. He's a very funny human being and one of my favorite humans on the planet. Rock Bottom was recorded and mixed at my studio between March of 2015 through October of 2017. I'd been playing a lot of instrumentals the past ten years and woke up one morning feeling that it was time to get my freak rock back on. I just had my Studer two-inch tape machine tuned up. I really wanted to record to tape again, so I called Teddy and Alan Hertz to come over and record a bunch of new tunes that I had brewing. We recorded the basic tracks to tape and I mixed the record to be played at a healthy volume on a real stereo system. We really took our time on this record. I spent a lot of time layering the guitars and vocals on Rock Bottom. Lyrically speaking, I would say that Rock Bottom is a bit of a prayer overall for mankind to get it together during these manic times. Musically, it is all tied together in the psychedelic, blues, and rock vein.

AAJ: It must be a real kick to play in a band with your wife, Karen. Will you take a moment and let the sun shine on Hazey Jane for a patch?

ML: My soul partner and wife Karen is one of my biggest inspirations. She goes by the name of Hazey Jane. Hazey was a character in a Nick Drake song. Karen is a beautiful songwriter. Her songs have that deep down in the well thing that you can't teach. It's hard to pinpoint where her music actually comes from. I'm so inspired by the mood and the simplicity of her music. Her guitar parts are generally very structured with complex picking patterns. So this frees me up to improvise and float around her musically.

AAJ: Your Organic Instrumentals recording from 2012 is, in my humble opinion, a landmark record. It is especially rich and well proportioned in jazz, rock, and blues fusion. May we be so fortunate to have a follow up in the future?

ML: Thanks very much for the kind words. I always have tons of instrumental ideas floating about. A lot of them are thankfully saved on voice memos or quick demos. I'm planning, now though, to do another vocal record with David Frazee and the boys for the Mascot Label, and maybe a live record with them as well. After that I'm not sure. I'll be itching to make some more instrumental music, it's always been a big part of what I do.

AAJ: You have mentioned in the past the possibility of putting out a DVD. Is that still something of interest? In closing, thank you again for taking the time. What else is on the near horizon for you?

ML: A DVD is still something I'd love to do. It's on the list you could say. Apart from that, I have an eight-week run coming up this summer in the USA and Europe with James Taylor. That will be followed by a tour in Asia in September with the Steve Gadd Band. I will possibly be going back to Asia with my quartet next February. I never imagined I'd be on the road this much at my age. I'm loving it. Good times and music with my pals. I consider myself a lucky guy.

Photo credit: Bob Barry

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