Sunday, August 25, 2019

Larry Carlton - 2006 "Fire Wire"

Fire Wire is an album by Larry Carlton that was released in 2006. It received a nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards which took place in 2007.

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 fusion—and 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 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 section—loose 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.

Issued in Japan in 2005, Larry Carlton's Fire Wire was issued stateside in March of 2006. This is a kind of continuation the Sapphire Blue session from 2004. Where the former album used a textured approach to the blues, many of the tunes here are in your face. They are mostly uptempo, funky, and tough, though some of them are moody and dark. And while "blues" are ever present here, they seem to inform Carlton's more rocking style on this offering. What's more, unlike some of his more commercial and fusion oriented projects, this one engages rock directly with a keen lyrical sensibility.

Keyboardist Jeff Babko seems to be a key collaborator on these tracks. His big fat synthetic backdrop provides ballast for the rhythm section -- bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Matt Chamberlain -- and a big enough jump-off point for Carlton to do his considerable stuff both riffing and filling the spaces. "Inkblot 11" roars out of the gate with Carlton stereo riffing alternately with the four-piece horn section that makes it groove. "Double Cross" touches on the blues, but it's funkier, especially when the guitar lines and Babko's Rhodes play in tandem and then Carlton goes for the power chords. "Surrender" is a smoky little blues rocker that sounds like a postmodern tribute to Peter Green. "Naked Truth" references Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand" in the opening moments and becomes its own distorted lyric ballad.

The big crunch returns in "Big Trouble," courtesy of Carlton's stereo guitar, and Csaba Petocz's in-the-red production. This is one of those tracks where the guitar just screams and screams of simple heavy rock vamps but who cares? It kicks butt. The funk returns on "Dirty Donna's House Party," with horns and keyboards popping all over the mix. Carlton's in the high register doing some serious string bending. The record closes with the abstractly moody jazz-funk number. It's an odd cut, but when it hits its groove, one can see why it was chosen to end the set. Carlton is simply loose, pushing the dials up and Babko supports him in the same way Jan Hammer supported Jeff Beck, filling spaces for the rhythm section to jump on, putting the vamp in the back instead of the front, and accelerating things in the middle so Carlton can just let loose -- and he does. Fire Wire isn't the most imaginative or creatively challenging record Carlton has ever made, but it is loose, reckless, and fun; he must have had a ball making it, but you'd never know it by the cover.

A departure from this heavy-duty program is “Sunrise,” a melancholy acoustic ballad in the tradition of his Grammy-winning album from 20 years ago, Alone/But Never Alone. Other highlights include Carlton’s stinging, Albert King-flavored licks and wah-wah wailing over the top of the funky “Dirty Donna’s House Party” (reminiscent of Billy Cobham’s “Stratus”) and his liquid harmonic sensibility on the lyrical ballad “Naked Truth” (inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”).

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Track listing

01    "Inkblot 11 – 3:18
02    "Double Cross – 4:36
03    "Naked Truth" – 3:49
04    "Surrender" – 5:01
05    "Big Trouble" – 3:42
06    "Goodbye" – 4:40
07    "Dirty Donna's House Party" – 5:37
08    "The Prince" – 4:35
09    "Sunrise" – 5:11
10     "Mean Street" – 6:48

Personnel

    Larry Carlton – guitar
    Mike Haynes – trumpet
    Barry Green – trombone
    Mark Douthit – saxophone
    Doug Moffet – baritone saxophone
    Jeff Babko – keyboards
    Michael Rhodes – bass guitar
    Matt Chamberlain – drums

3 comments:

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  2. Thank you so much!

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