The Singer and the Song (Part III): Larry Klein

In this new three-part interview series, vocalist Nicky Schrire explores the intersection between the jazz and singer-songwriter genres. A jazz singer-songwriter herself, she often wonders what makes for a successful genre-blending song. And, inversely, when does an attempt at weaving song and story within the parameters of an improvised, jazz context fall short of the mark? 

For the third and final instalment of this series, Schrire chats to the Los Angeles-based producer, bassist and songwriter, Larry Klein. Klein is one of the great producers of our time, who has produced albums for both iconic singer-songwriters and jazz legends. He has helmed albums for Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux, and Herbie Hancock, while his work as a bassist has seen him collaborate with Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan. The four-time Grammy Award winner lives at the intersection of these two genres and continues to successfully guide singers, songwriters and improvisers in weaving together these two musical worlds. 

Larry Klein side portrait in black and white
Larry Klein. Photo credit: James Minchin

London Jazz News: How would you define the term “jazz singer-songwriter”?

Larry Klein: Hmm. Well, my natural tendency is not to draw lines between things genre-wise. And so it’s an unusual thing for me to try and comment on because when I listen to music or when I hear a song, it’s quite rare for me to actually even think about whether that song would be considered jazz or not. The place that I live, musically, when I make records or even when I listen to music, is that the things that I’m drawn to are things that live between other things. The things that kind of sit in the cracks between genres. When I make records, the aesthetic that I’m usually drawn to is a sort of a nexus between different genres. So a lot of the records that I’m most interested in are ones that sit in between jazz, country and R&B. In the sort of meeting point between them.

LJN: Let me use the finite example of when you produced Billy Childs’ tribute album to Laura Nyro. Laura is obviously a singer-songwriter. That is what she did and that’s the type of music she made. And Billy Childs is a jazz pianist first and foremost. So the coming together of those two worlds is, I would say, a good example, of a jazz singer-songwriter record. And then you added to the mix guest vocalists like Becca Stevens, who comes from the singer-songwriter tradition, or someone like Alison Krauss who is Americana (you mentioned country music). What do you keep at the fore of your mind when you go in to produce a project like that?

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LK: To begin with, we’re starting with a singer-songwriter who was certainly influenced by jazz. In her songwriting and in her aesthetics, jazz was a prominent part of things. But in taking material like Laura Nyro songs and doing new versions, my goal always is to try and find a way for the audience to hear the words and the music that she wrote in a new way. Almost to hear these songs as if they’ve never heard them before, to find a new looking glass through which to examine a song.

For example, to hear Alison Krauss present the song is going to lend a different quality to the song. You get something totally new from it. It’s a human characteristic to take a particular recording, especially if it’s something that is well-known and becomes a classic. Classic recordings become part of the collective unconscious and so I think that people, over the course of years, come to hear the recording, the particulars of how the song was originally arranged and recorded, to the point where in some ways they don’t hear the song anymore. They don’t hear the lyrics. They hear the song as a recording rather than as a song. Do you know what I mean?

LJN: Yes. And do you feel that jazz is a particularly good lens through which to do just that? See something in a new and perhaps surprising light?

LJN: Yeah, perhaps. Even when it comes to the players that I’m drawn to, when I do a record that is reexamining a singer-songwriter’s material, I’m always thinking of players who think and play beyond genre. That what they’re playing is jazz informed. But they’ve sort of moved beyond the specifics of what we call “jazz”. I just produced a record of Leonard Cohen’s music, for example, where the last thing I wanted to do was make a jazz record. I did not want to do that. And so I really thought very carefully about the musicians I was going to get to play on it because I wanted to get musicians who listen to words and what they’re capable of musically is beyond virtuosity. They’re not musicians who feel that they have to show what they can do as jazz musicians. They’re able to set aside the fact that they come from a jazz background and they’re able to listen to and approach music without jazz affecting their approach in a specific way.

LJN: It really does sound like one of the things that you value about jazz is that it is a tool that can be used to varying degrees. You’re a great example of the kind of musician you described, someone who has that jazz foundation on which to call but has moved far beyond it in a wonderful way.

LK: Yeah. And I think I got that from my mentors, from people like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. This is one of my favourite Wayne-isms, so to speak. At some point, when Wayne was asked about the definition of jazz, he said, “Jazz is: I dare you”. The knowledge that comes with being proficient in what we call jazz, can be used as a tool to get beyond what we would call R&B or what we would call country music. It’s sort of a Broadway, Tin Pan Alley-type songwriting, and that’s the territory and the singer-songwriters that I’m really interested in. For example, Laura Nyro was very much influenced by Broadway songwriting. You could tell that she had really listened to the songs from Broadway musicals. And you could also tell that she had really thoroughly absorbed jazz, whether it was bebop or post-bop or different areas that would be considered jazz. But the end product of a lot of what she did writing-wise, was not Broadway songwriting. And it wasn’t jazz either. And it wasn’t country music. It wasn’t folk music. It was some sort of combination of these elements rearranged and recontextualised in a way that creates something new. It creates a new genre in and of itself. And, if you’re successful, you’re able to let people hear a song as if they’ve never heard it before.

That’s the ultimate goal for me – covering a song and utilising jazz elements or a combination of elements that you would consider from jazz, some from what you would call a folk area of things, some from a more country area of things. The goal for me is to take parts of what is done in all of these genres and sort of rearrange them and reexamine them and utilise them in a way that makes people hear the lyrics and the music and that makes them hear the song in a completely new way. And by doing so, touches them in a new way, because I think for me, the reason that I love making records and the reason that I do it, is to change people. When they hear a song, it changes them, it makes them into different men. Maybe only for 5 minutes. But maybe not. Maybe it changes the way they think about something in a more enduring way.

To use the record that I did with Herbie as an example, the record of Joni’s music [“River: The Joni Letters”]. Our goal certainly wasn’t to try and beat the original because the original is definitive. And on the record that Joni made of those songs, almost every time she ended up with something that was definitive and original and new-sounding and different because of her genius as a singer-songwriter and conceptualisation of a love of music. So you can set aside trying to beat the original because if you’re going to record a Beach Boys song, a great, great song that Brian Wilson wrote and think that you’re going to actually beat it, it’s a futile pursuit. These songs have become classics and they’ve become ingrained in us in such a thorough way because of how well they’ve been done. But what you can do is open up that new territory perceptually so that people listen to them and set aside some of the specifics of the way the record was arranged and put together and hear the meaning and the core of the song in a new way.

Larry Klein in the studio at the mixing desk in black and white
Larry Klein. Photo credit: James Minchin

LJN: I have so many follow-up questions. You mentioned the Beach Boys and I wanted to bring up “The New Bossa Nova”, which is an album that you produced for Luciana Souza, where you were dealing with singer-songwriter material seen through the lens of the bossa nova. The closing track of the album was Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” sung by Luciana in a wonderful arrangement that was wildly different from the version we all know. Do you have a guide, Larry, or a tried and tested barometer where you know that you’re not going to go too far with an arrangement? And bearing in mind it’s all a matter of taste. But, that aside, what makes you feel like you’ve struck the right balance? 

LK: The way it affects me when I listen to it. And in the making of a record, you listen to what you’re doing from multiple perspectives. You listen to different parts of the arrangement and you listen to how the words bounce off of aspects of how it’s arranged. And then you have to trust your heart and trust how the final blend of elements makes you feel, you know? “The New Bossa Nova” is probably more specific in the way that it’s re-approaching these songs more than most things that I do. The idea was we were going to take certain kinds of subtleties and the understatement of bossa nova and specific characteristics of some of these great records made during the golden period of bossa nova, borrowing them and blending them together in a new way. There’s probably more specificity in that record than most of those types of projects that I do and all I could do in that case was trust how the recording made me feel and how what we were doing made me feel. Did it make me hear the lyrics in a new way? It did for me on that record. 

LJN: It did for me, too! On all the songs you covered – Joni, James Taylor, Brian Wilson.

LK: Would it be a relevant criticism to say, well, you’re just taking these songs and you’re recontextualising them using devices that were developed during the golden period of bossa nova? That’s a relevant criticism of that record. But for me, we were always trying to find the line where we could not cross over in that respect. And if we did cross over, then that was where things got too specific. If you go too far, then you created a piece of nostalgia. But it’s all in how it affects you.

When Joni and I did the record “Both Sides Now”, the concept of that record was taking jazz standards and creating the arc of a relationship with those songs. And then, in doing so, we came up with the idea of placing two of her songs in that progression. So at the midpoint, we put “A Case Of You” as a sort of dividing line. Then we concluded with “Both Sides Now” as a song to indicate that there is no real resolution. You know, the thing is, you would come out of a marriage or a relationship and the resolution is the non-resolution of it. I remember, for Joni and I when we sent those two songs over to Herbie and Wayne to listen to, they said that they cried all the way through both of them. We knew at that point, because these guys are two of the musicians that we consider to be sort of Olympians, who are beyond comparison, we’d done it. We’ve achieved what we wanted to do, which was to reframe these songs in a way where people heard the words in a new way. It affected them and changed them. And, in the case of Herbie and Wayne, touched them so deeply that they actually cried through them. 

LJN: We’ve spoken about songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. There are so many others you’ve worked with – Shawn Colvin, whom I absolutely adore – and you’ve also written your own songs. You haven’t just helped bring to life reinterpretations of other singer-songwriters’ songs within a jazz context. And you’ve co-written with Madeleine Peyroux. What have all of the songwriters you’ve worked with taught you about writing a good song? When is it a good song?

LK: It’s a good song when it, somehow, through the combination of melody, lyric and structure, changes you inside. That’s when I know I’ve done something that I can feel good about, whether it’s writing a song or producing a record. If I feel like I can put that song on or that record on and it makes me feel like it changed me, it’s turned things inside out a bit inside me, then I think, “Okay, I’ve done something here.” Usually it’s a combination of both the work that I have done and the musicians that I’m working with. We’ve really achieved something if we listen back to what we’ve done, and we feel like it changes us from when we listen to it. That’s what great art is. Just to conclude, there’s a great Franz Kafka quote that I always think of when I think of this question. And the quote is, “A book [or art] must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” That kind of says it all, that we go through life, waking up every day and doing these things that we do that make us numb in a certain sense to all sorts of things. We become immune to so much in life and great art can take that kind of numbness and break it up and make us feel things intensely again. 

LJN: Oh, Larry, that’s an amazing place to end. Your outlook is both generous and brilliant and has enriched this topic. Thank you so much.

LK: Jazz is, “I dare you!” 

LINK: Larry Klein’s website

The Singer and the Song (Part I): Jamie Cullum

The Singer and the Song (Part II): Becca Stevens

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