Concert review: Larry Carlton, Bruce Mason Centre

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Given the battery of foot pedals and phalanx of guitars some rock musicians have available on stage, you'd conclude a single six-string must be an instrument of limited musical language and possibilities.

Yet some of the most expressive guitarists between jazz and rock - Jeff Beck comes to mind - can step into the spotlight with one guitar and seduce or cajole a wide range of emotions and ideas from it.

In that rare company we count former session guitarist-to-the-stars and jazz player Larry Carlton who, with one Gibson and a modest number of pedals, took his quietly attentive but loudly appreciative audience on a journey between barely audible and romantically pointillistic playing to moments so close to metal-edge shredding you knew even that was within his grasp.

At 66 and playing with a pick-up group of exceptional young Australians about half his age, Carlton delivered a tight performance which proved the old joke: rock guitarists make the easy look difficult and jazz players make the impossible seem effortless.

In Carlton's case that was true: whether it was engaging in free-form funky playing with keyboardist Phil Turcio as his foil (shut your eyes and it could have been John McLaughlin in a Miles Davis fusion session) or tickling out notes that could conjure up angels (eyes closed it might be Roy Buchanan at his most spiritual), Carlton showed the sublime or seriously rocking were easily available to him.

He included instantly familiar material, among them the West Coast cruise of his hit Smiles and Smiles to Go, a take on Steely Dan's Josie ("I hate this song," he quipped), Kid Charlemagne where he deftly replicated Donald Fagen's vocal line, and his Grammy-winning instrumental version of the Doobie Brothers' Minute by Minute.

Carlton - effectively disposing of the preconception he might be some kind of MOR fusion middleweight - teased out simple tunes, deployed the most subtle wah-wah, deconstructed melodies through a tone pedal to the point they became evocative abstractions and explored a breathtakingly wide tonal range from a single guitar.

There was funk (Burnable), subtle sustain (Oui Oui Si) and to close the bayed-for encore, he offered an understated LA-styled but faithfully evocative version of the steel guitar 1950s standard Sleep Walk.

Jazz concerts are always a risk as the audience is often not identifiable.

But whether it was his studio reputation or somehow the word got out, Larry Carlton pulled a very large audience (a quarter of the room seemed to be guitarists when he asked who was) and proved it was possible to channel genius through just one guitar.

- NZ Herald

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