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The Eclectic Mr. Klein

As both a bassist and a producer, Larry Klein plows a wide—and award-winning—furrow

Larry Klein (photo: Alan Shaffer)

Four-time Grammy winner Larry Klein was only in his mid-teens when he had his first epiphany as an aspiring jazz bassist, thanks to the 1968 album Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. No doubt, other budding young musicians at the time were similarly inspired by the near-telepathic musical conversations between Evans, rising bass ace Eddie Gómez, and fresh-faced drum dynamo Jack DeJohnette. But Southern California native Klein is surely the only one who, while still underage, was introduced by his bass teacher to Gómez—and subsequently hung out with the Evans trio several times a year at the 21-and-up Playboy Club in Los Angeles.

“Somehow my teacher worked it out with Eddie and I went to pretty much every show the trio played there,” remembers Klein, now one of the most versatile and accomplished bassists and producers in and out of jazz. “I was 16 or 17, and there I was, sitting a few feet away from these musicians who were like Marvel Comics characters to me. I got to talk with them between shows and watch every set they played, while being served Coca-Cola by Playboy Bunnies. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!”

Klein would soon find his feet playing with Willie Bobo, Carmen McRae, and Freddie Hubbard. The formal music studies he’d begun as a seventh-grader at the Community Schools at the University of Southern California (now the prestigious Thornton School of Music)—where he met and befriended pianist Billy Childs when both were 16—continued at Cal State University Los Angeles; meanwhile, he gigged at night. Eventually, he became a regular on the road and in the studio with Hubbard. But by the early ’80s, Klein yearned for a change. It was the start of a new career that would see him blossom, first as an equally skilled acoustic and electric studio bassist, then as an unusually eclectic producer.

Just how eclectic? Take a look at some of Klein’s many production credits: They range from pop, country, folk, and Americana artists (Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, J.D. Souther) to an array of rock, jazz, and Latin music performers (Starship, Dinosaur Jr., Donny McCaslin, Ana Moura, Madeleine Peyroux, and Klein’s second wife, esteemed Brazilian singer/songwriter Luciana Souza). In December, Klein earned his third Grammy nomination in the category of Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. This follows Grammy victories in 1996 and 2001—both for albums he produced for and with his first wife, Joni Mitchell—and the 2008 Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Jazz Album Grammys he shared with Herbie Hancock (for co-producing the all-star Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters).

Klein, who started teaching master classes in record production at Berklee last year, cut his teeth co-producing Mitchell’s 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast, during which time he and Mitchell first became romantically involved. His electric bass work on that album stands out for its ingenious craft and sensitivity—and for how much his playing doesn’t sound like Jaco Pastorius, Mitchell’s previous bassist.

“Jaco was a one-in-a-million talent,” Klein says. “And I thought: ‘Well, that’s a loser’s game to try and make yourself fit into the mold of someone like that.’ So I just stayed on my own path and continued to try and distill something that was mine from all the various influences—including a lot of reggae music—that formed my musical personality.”

He chuckles. “I always think of my path toward producing records as one of a series of depressions, really! Because I started out wanting just to be a great bass player and work in all types of musical milieus. After being on the road with my jazz heroes for five years or so, about nine months a year, I got a bit tired of the traveling aspect. And I became disenchanted with some of the narrowness in the way some jazz musicians thought about things. There was a lot of dissension, within the jazz community, about ‘What is the “real” stuff?’ And it still goes on.

“I started feeling a lot of the vitality was going on in rock, pop, and other areas adjacent to jazz. I thought, ‘I’ll stay in L.A. and try and do studio work.’ I ended up going into the world of being a studio musician, and—eventually—I started getting depressed with that life. Because, to make a living as a studio musician, you have to play everything you get called for, whether it’s good, terrible, or mediocre.”

Klein was further dismayed as a studio musician by the over-production and questionable creative choices he encountered. He decided he’d be much happier if he had “a wider umbrella” as a player, arranger, and overall sonic architect who could control the way a record sounded from the outset. And so he became a producer, albeit one who has also deftly handled the bass role on a significant number of the 60-plus albums he’s produced.

Yet, even when he’s not performing on an album he’s producing, Klein never lets more than a day or two go by without playing one of his acoustic or electric basses. His creative impetus remains constant in any context.

“All of the music I’ve done in the jazz realm absolutely informs the work I do in other genres,” Klein says. “In fact, usually the projects I’m drawn to working on are hybrids of some sort. Of the many people I’ve worked with and learned from, Herbie and Wayne Shorter are probably my biggest influences in the way they don’t think of music as sitting on boxes. They just think of it as music.”

Originally Published

George Varga

George Varga began drumming in bands at 12 and writing professionally about music at 15. A Louisiana native who grew up mostly in Germany, he has earned three Pulitzer Prize nominations as the music critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune. In 2002, he created and taught the UC San Diego Extension course, “Jazz in a Post-Ken-Burns World.” Varga’s latest project is Acid Reflux & The Wardrobe Malfunctions, a free-jazz Ashlee Simpson/Janet Jackson tribute band.