Producer, songwriter and musician Larry Klein is having a good year. In a way, one could say his current success is the culmination of a process of recontextualizing his background, his experience, his talents and his interests.
Two records he produced have just been released on Verve Records: "River: The Joni Letters" by jazz great Herbie Hancock, an exploration of the songs of Joni Mitchell (who is Klein's ex-wife); and "The New Bossa Nova" by Brazilian-born singer and composer Luciana Souza (his new wife). Starbucks has just released Joni Mitchell's new album, "Shine," on which he plays, and he's been co-writing and producing a new record by Walter Becker of Steely Dan fame.
Recently, over lunch at Hal's in Venice, Klein recounted that when Verve first brought up the idea of working on "The Joni Letters" with Hancock, his reaction was "what a great way to bind together a number of different threads." The theme of weaving together his various talents and interests -- professional and personal -- is a neat way to encapsulate Klein's professional journey.
Klein grew up, he recalled, "in an area of Los Angeles that is now known for its Chinese food, Monterey Park." His parents say it had a sizeable Jewish community when they first moved there, but that was not the case when he was growing up. "By the time I was 5 or 6, there were few Jewish families and a healthy [or unhealthy] dose of anti-Semitism," he said.
Music and literature proved his salvation. They were, he says, "my escape." Initially inspired by his parents' record collection, Klein began his musical education by taking guitar lessons at a "typical suburban music store," where the teacher sometimes fell asleep during the lesson.
However, in junior high school his mother enrolled him in The Community School for the Performing Arts, an after-school music program, sponsored by USC, which allowed him to take classes in composition and music theory. At Schnurr High School he was also fortunate to have a "Mr. Holland"-type teacher in Wayne Bischoff.
"He was an incredible character and introduced me to so much music -- Charles Ives, [and] the entire history of classical music." As a result, Klein spent about three quarters of his day studying music. He also spent time outside of class going to concerts and seeing such legends as Jimi Hendrix and early performances by James Taylor and Jackson Browne.
Klein started playing in rock bands in sixth grade. He switched to bass early on. Rock, however, was only a small part of the wide swath of music that interested him. "I was a maniacal fan of Charles Ives," Klein recalled. "I got into serial composition and would listen to a lot of Schoenberg and Anton Weber."
As Klein got serious about playing bass, he also became more interested in jazz. "There were only a certain amount of challenges available to a bass player in the rock genre."
By age 17, Klein was playing professionally around Los Angeles with Latin percussionist Willie Bobo, including at places like The Comeback Inn on Abbott Kinney in Venice. "This was a great place to meet some of the most exciting musical talents, such as drummer Chester Thompson (who played with Frank Zappa and with Genesis), and jazz pianist George Cables." It was there that jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard heard Klein and offered him a job on the road with him. Although Klein had graduated high school early and was enrolled in Cal State LA as a music major, he took the offer.
"That was my master class," Klein said, "as Freddie was fond of pointing out."
He was living his dream as a jazz bassist and playing with his heroes, and there was a large market for rock-inflected jazz at the time -- Miles Davis had led the way, and others, including Hubbard, were experimenting and playing large concert halls.
Nonetheless, after five years with Hubbard, at times spending eight months of the year on the road, Klein had had enough. Gradually he'd become "impatient with the narrowness of that world."
He decided to work on his songwriting and do more studio work. However, being a studio musician meant playing a lot of record dates for music that he neither loved, nor even liked.
"A lot of the music didn't feel honest or inspiring," Klein recalled, "I became frustrated with that role."
Around that time, he got a call to work on a Joni Mitchell album, "Wild Things Run Fast." The album, which came out in 1982, took a year to record and carried the following credit: "Special thanks to Larry Klein for caring about and fussing over this record with me." Over the year a friendship had developed into a love affair, and they married in November 1982.
Klein began a personal and creative collaboration with Mitchell that involved producing, writing and playing on her albums, including "Dog Eat Dog," "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm," "Night Ride Home" and "Turbulent Indigo."
So, I asked him: What was it like to write with Joni Mitchell?
"With her it was a very simple process," Klein said. "Basically, I was always writing music, and she would hear something through the wall that she liked, and she would say, 'Give me that.'"
At the same time, Klein was moving into solo producing. "I wanted to find a new way to integrate everything I knew." In 1986, he produced "The Lace," a solo album for Benjamin Orr of The Cars. Over the next decade, he also produced albums by Shawn Colvin, Holly Cole and Julia Fordham. More recently he has produced albums by Rebecca Pidgeon ("Tough on Crime") and Madeleine Peyroux ("Careless Love").
Klein describes the late 1980s and '90s as a time when he was "crop rotating" between songwriting, production and playing. The variety of assignments allowed him to be pickier about whom he played for -- and, as a result, he performed with, as he put it, "people who were my heroes." He played on the soundtrack to "Raging Bull" with Robbie Robertson, which led to playing on Robertson's solo album, as well as with Don Henley on all his solo records. He also played with Tracy Chapman, Aaron Neville, Bryan Adams and wrote songs with Bonnie Raitt and Warren Zevon.
Doing so also allowed him to learn from other producers, such as Robert John "Mutt" Lang, who has produced and/or written massive hits for AC/DC, Foreigner, The Cars, Bryan Adams, and Shania Twain (to whom Lang is married). Klein credits Lang with being "incredibly talented at making the complex sound simple." However, more than anyone, Klein credits Mitchell with teaching him the most important parts of producing: "How to say what, when" (which Klein admits he sometimes learned the hard way); and "how to adeptly bring out the best in an artist that they can possibly put forward at a given juncture in their career and artistic development."
Although Klein and Mitchell divorced in 1994, they have continued to work together -- and the current projects are evidence of that.
The idea behind "River: The Joni Letters," Klein says, was that "we wanted the entire record to emanate from the poetry." Klein and Hancock spent two months on preproduction, winnowing down a list of songs, talking about the lyrics, and discussing the best singers for the songs, who came to include Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Souza and Tina Turner (who, as far as I am concerned is the big surprise here, turning in a vocal performance that recalls Ella Fitzgerald), along with a reading by Leonard Cohen that Hancock improvises around. The recording also includes Mitchell singing on "Tea Leaf Prophecy," a song she wrote with Klein about her parents' courtship.
Several of the tracks are instrumental, and in these, as in all the tracks, Klein and Hancock sought to "get away from conventional Jazz structure," which Klein characterized as "melody, solo, solo, solo, play the melody and out."
"We approached this more as a dialogue," Klein told me. The album, Klein explained, is "geared toward Joni's world" and includes two songs not written by Mitchell but "that were important songs in her musical development."
One is "Solitude," by Duke Ellington, which Mitchell first heard as a 9-year-old. As sung by Billie Holiday, "it kind of set off something inside her." The other is "Nefertiti," by Wayne Shorter; Mitchell heard Miles Davis' version, Klein said, and "it's one of those records that knocks you on your ass, and you think, 'Wow!'"
Klein sees Souza's "The New Bossa Nova" as a companion piece to the Hancock recording: "Both records come from the same germ." He believes that as listeners, we get inured to the lyrics in great songs, and that setting them in a new musical context -- "recontextualizing them" -- makes us appreciate the lyrics anew.
So Klein and Hancock turned to jazz for Mitchell, and Klein and Souza looked to 1960s bossa nova style to recast the songs of such great contemporary American songwriters as Sting, Brian Wilson and James Taylor (who duets with Souza on his song "Never Die Young"). Souza also bridges the span between Brazil and America with a gorgeous English language version of Jobim's gem "The Waters of March."
Klein and Souza just celebrated their first wedding anniversary. They met when Souza, who is the daughter of Brazilian songwriters Walter Santos and Teresa Souza, performed as a soloist at Walt Disney Hall in a piece written by Billy Childs, one of Klein's former classmates from The Community School program. They were married here in Los Angeles by Rabbi Mordecai Finley. Souza, who became a Jew-by-choice under Finley's tutelage, gives the following credit on her album: "To Mordecai Finley, for the beacon."
At which point Klein offered up the story of his own spiritual journey. "
I went to Hebrew school and got bar mitzvahed, and after getting bar mitzvahed, I could not get away fast enough," he replied.
Although Klein describes himself as being of "a spiritual bent" and "spiritually curious," he found that the Judaism he was taught was "so by rote and so devoid of any pragmatic application or real etymological tying-in to how these ideas should be interpreted, that I could see nothing about it that was interesting." Instead he became interested in Buddhism, which he studied for many years.
"I was most interested in Tibetan Buddhism, but never found a community in that tradition that felt really honestly viable for me," he said.
Several years ago, while working with Rebecca Pidgeon on her album, over the course of many philosophical discussions she suggested to Klein that he might attend a Sabbath service with her and her husband, David Mamet, at Ohr HaTorah, with Finley.
"I was just astounded," Klein says. In Finley, Klein found "someone teaching who really understood the philosophical implications of the Torah and also the metaphoric subtleties. The way that Finley spoke of Judaism and Torah was, in Klein's words, "a whole new thing for me." After a few more visits, Klein went to Ohr HaTorah for the High Holy Days.
"I thought, 'Wow!'" Klein recalled, "Isn't it ironic that this is what I was looking for?"
As I said earlier, recontextualizing has been very, very good for Klein. And for all of us, the beneficiaries of "The Joni Letters," "The New Bossa Nova," and all the rivers of music that Klein has to share.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
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