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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.

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