Earl Klugh - Hand Picked (2013)

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    Since his days as a teen prodigy in Detroit, Earl Klugh has fashioned a surprisingly varied career around his acoustic guitar sounds. He's had success in duet formats with both Bob James and George Benson, has fronted a seven piece band, led a straight up jazz trio, created orchestral tributes to standards and issued sparsely arranged solo albums.  And in every format, the low key guitarist and songwriter has created an aura of soothing cool around a unique style of playing that harkens to - but does not copy - elements of all-time greats ranging from Chet Atkins to Wes Montgomery.

    Back in 1989, after a series of successful albums in bigger band settings, Klugh stripped everything down for Solo Guitar, an intimate album of solo takes on standards ranging from "It's Only A Paper Moon" to "Autumn Leaves." It hit the top 5 on the jazz charts and provided a different platform for Klugh's often underrated skills as an interpreter.  More than two decades later, Klugh again gets intimate on his newest release, Hand Picked, a nifty package of originals and classic covers that is his first release on the Heads Up label.

    While most of Hand Picked is Klugh working alone on his familiar acoustic guitar, he strategically brings in guests, including eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell on a cover of the early R&B classic "Blue Moon," country star Vince Gill on the Everlys' "All I Have to Do is Dream" and ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro on the album's centerpiece, an eight-minute version of the Eagles' "Hotel California."  The latter, in particular, strips all the bluster of the original, giving it an intimate, searching feel, with the unique combination of ukulele and acoustic guitar working beautifully.

    Aside from those feature cuts, there are a number of gems among the album's 16 tracks: "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" was included on Klugh's late 70s Magic In Your Eyes album and it is reprised here in a crisper, leaner format; "More and More Amor" is a dexterous, almost timeless reworking of an obscure Herb Alpert song from the 60s; and "This Time," a Klugh composition that was previously performed by Al Jarreau, provides a light acoustic coda to the album.

    Earl Klugh has been tough to categorize throughout his four decade career. Neither pop nor jazz, he is best described simply as a supreme guitarist who has moved from genre to genre, always bringing a sense of melody and accessibility to anything he's touched. And on his 31st album, he brings those same sensibilities, not breaking new ground but continuing to mine somewhat familiar territory in his unique, understated fashion. Hand Picked is clearly a labor of love for the nearly 60-year old - with each song bearing special meaning to him - and on it he provides long time fans with a comfortable, melodic collection, smartly selected and beautifully performed. Recommended.

    By Chris Rizik