The term “virtuoso” gets thrown around, especially regarding guitarists. Playing that’s dubbed virtuosic tends to come from either the classical or the ultra-high-speed metal traditions, and while intricate Bach fugues and blazing 500-note runs are undoubtedly impressive, there’s something to be said for players who can move, seemingly without effort, from style to style, whether across a career or within one performance. Opening his packed-house Wednesday night show at SOhO with a subdued but powerful solo, Larry Carlton drew what sounded like a not entirely sober cry of “Virtuoso!” from the back of the room. His is the most enjoyable guitar virtuosity, the type equally at home in a host of distinct musical settings.
A recent recipient of Guitar Player magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the 60-year-old Carlton surely has amassed enough guitar experience to add up to more than one lifetime of playing. In addition to a solo career that spans contemporary jazz, blues, rock, and instrumental pop, Carlton has session credits on albums by artists from Michael Jackson to the Crusaders to Joni Mitchell. His set at SOhO concentrated on the styles in which he’s recently been recording, including the hard-edged blues of his Sapphire Blue album and the minimalist instrumental rock of the newer Fire Wire. Despite throwing in a few fan favorites, he couldn’t resist joking about the set list: “Have you ever gone to see an artist you really like, and they just play a bunch of songs you’ve never heard before? Well, here’s another one you’ve never heard.”
Whatever his selections are, Carlton plays as naturally as he breathes. He and the trio (which included his bass-playing son, Travis) kept it simple, solid, and strong, sounding polished but not complicated. As a special treat for the Steely Dan fans in the room-Carlton’s fan base naturally overlaps with that of the great jazz-rock outfit, as he has recorded many sessions with them-he finished the night with an instrumental version of Steely Dan’s 1977 song “Josie.” While it was business as usual for Carlton, a striking level of skill came through in every note he played. “You can’t practice that,” he joked, having just finished one of those solos you can only pull off if you happen to have more than 50 years of playing behind you and roots in no fewer than four genres.