It was 1972, and the turbulent ’60s were giving way to
the decadent ’70s. Nixon was in the White House, Deep Throat was in theaters, and the
Los Angeles home of Hugh Hefner’s international Playboy Club—newly relocated from
Sunset Boulevard to Century City and frequented by the likes of Johnny Carson—was
a shining beacon of swinging bachelor-pad possibilities.
Twenty-five miles away, in suburban Monterey Park, a 16-year-old wunderkind was
beginning to find his groove. After starting on guitar at six and switching to electric
bass at nine, he’d begun taking lessons with Steppenwolf/Delaney & Bonnie bassist Fred
Rivera. His teacher, Herb Mickman, was schooling him on electric, upright, piano, and
jazz harmony, and it was Mickman who suggested they go see the Bill Evans Trio—at
the Playboy Club. “I wasn’t even allowed to be there, but somehow he managed to spirit
me into the place,” says Klein four decades later. “You can imagine a 16-year-old kid
seeing Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez at the Playboy Club, with Playboy Bunnies walking
around. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!”
That’d be a high point for any teenage jazz fan
born in the ’50s, but Klein’s career hadn’t even begun.
His broad palette and ear for pop allowed him to
move smoothly from a promising late-’70s stint as
a top-flight jazz sideman (Freddie Hubbard, Dianne
Reeves) to a career as a versatile session ninja (Robbie
Robertson, Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter) with filmscoring
skills (Grace of My Heart, Duets), capable of
creating bass sub-hooks on huge ’80s hits (Don Henley’s
“Boys of Summer” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your
Eyes”), as well as a fresh, contemporary approach
to Joni Mitchell’s music after her celebrated string
of albums featuring Jaco Pastorius.
It is as a producer and co-writer, however, that
Klein has achieved his widest fame. His resumé is
especially notable for the long list of great female
singer/songwriters—including Tracy Chapman,
Madeleine Peyroux, Shawn Colvin, Julia Fordham,
Bonnie Raitt, and Holly Cole—with whom he’s
worked. Over the years, Klein has developed a reputation
for being relaxed, sensitive, and open to new
ideas, qualities that certainly endeared him to Mitchell,
who first hired him in 1982. They were married
from 1982 to 1994, and Klein has played on, produced,
or co-produced everything she’s done since
the ’80s, nabbing Grammys for his contributions
to 1995’s Turbulent Indigo, 2001’s Both Sides Now,
Herbie Hancock’s 2008 masterwork River: The Joni
Letters, and its follow-up, 2011’s The Imagine Project.
More than 40 years after he hit the scene, Klein’s
Strange Cargo label gives him the freedom to work
with handpicked artists such as Thomas Dybdahl,
whose sexy, trippy, Klein-produced What’s Left Is
Forever hit shelves last year. When the mood strikes
him, he reaches for a sunburst ’62 Jazz Bass, a
Gretsch Country Gentleman, or his longtime favorite,
a Music Man StingRay 5-string, but producing
is what he loves most these days. He’s done three
Grammy-nominated albums with his wife, the
accomplished Brazilian songstress/producer Luciana
Souza—“a wicked demon of a musician”—and
is working on a fourth. Nominated for a Producer of
the Year Grammy in 2009 for his work with Melody
Gardot, Klein has much to look forward to, including
projects with J.D. Souther and Liz Wright, another
record with Gardot, and “an ambitious project” with
Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang. What’s the most
crucial advice he could give after all these years of
high-profile collaborations and successes? “Hold on
to your humility, and seek out great teachers. That
would be at the top of my list.”
You took lessons with Fred Rivera and Herb
Mickman, but did you have other teachers?
Those were my two first teachers, and then all
through junior high and high school I went to USC
Community Schools, now the Colburn School, where
they had great teachers and guest lecturers such as
Michael Tilson Thomas. I also took private composition
classes with a guy named Wayne Bischoff, a
Mr. Holland’s Opus-type character, in seventh grade,
and I studied classical arco technique with John Schiavo
of the L.A. Philharmonic. I was really lucky all
my life in finding the right teachers.
How relevant to your career were those years
of studying theory and harmony?
All the things you absorb, whether it be a Beethoven
symphony or a song you hear on the radio—all of it
ends up informing your musical instincts. Early on,
it may have seemed like all that disparate information
had no effect on what I played intuitively, but
eventually, it affected how I built bass lines and how
I saw bass fitting into the design of a given track.
Everything in our world now is so abbreviated,
moving at such an incredibly fast rate, people forget
that apprenticeship and studying and focusing on
the basic building blocks of playing and writing
music are so important. I’m happy to rant on that
How did your time with Joni Mitchell affect
your knowledge of harmony?
Profoundly. She crafted a sense of harmony for
herself by virtue of the tunings she developed, all
because she just didn’t have the hand strength to
finger chords in the usual way. I ended up using
those guitar tunings myself to write with, so yes,
she strongly influenced my sense of harmony and
What’s your perspective on Jaco’s work
Before me, guys like Max Bennett—and even
earlier, Stephen Stills—had played on her records.
Joni was ready to work with someone who played
in a way where the bass wasn’t down at the bottom
of the track. Jaco was her liberator in that respect.
You began working with Joni just after her
last album with Jaco. How was that?
Jaco was functioning pretty much exclusively as
a melodic counterpoint to Joni, and by the time I
began working with her, she wanted the bass to have a
greater part in holding down the groove. At the same
time, she also didn’t want anything that resembled
a conventional approach. So I was searching for my own way of approaching both her music and the role of the bass.
Of all the work you’ve done together, what stands out?
Different tracks from all the records pop out from time to
time. I like so many things, but Night Ride Home  was a
wonderful record to make, and I’m really proud of the bass work
on there. I was asked to contribute to a book about Joni [2013’s
Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell’s Songs], and I chose to
write about “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” [from Wild Things
Run Fast, 1982]. There’s something so profound about that track—
it makes me cry every time I hear it.
Did you get to hang with Jaco?
Yes. As a person, he was such a walking idiosyncrasy. He was
so confident and arrogant, but there was a part of his spirit that
was innocent and had such a fun edge that I would never hold
that against him.
You walk into a session and hear a track for the first
time. What goes through your mind?
I hear things that tie into the melody, the chord structure,
and the way the song is designed. I hear these repetitive things,
and I’m sure the reason I hear them is that I’ve absorbed so many
great bass parts by other bass players.
Do you think bass players are naturally suited to being
We sit at the intersection of groove, harmony, and melody,
and spending years providing the right kind of structure can prepare
one to have a vision of how the landscape of a track should
be built. But being a producer is a very complex job that changes
with every record and every artist.
When you produce at the highest level, you become just another
person in the room who’s directing, opening doors, and shedding
light on things. Everyone leaves the studio thinking, Wow, I just
played better than I’ve ever played. They don’t go home thinking,
That guy is a great producer. When you’re really doing your job,
you almost disappear.
How did you apply that to Thomas Dybdahl?
He had already built a substantial career and made some great
records on his own, so I wanted to explore parts of himself he
hadn’t really explored. A lot of things we did were based on germs
of things he’d done in prior projects.
Did you begin the sessions with strong production ideas?
Early on, Thomas asked me what production techniques I was
planning to use, and the only thing I could say was, I don’t know.
But I told him that a lot of it was inside him already. The last thing
I wanted to do was to come in with a bucket of tricks and redesign
the way he did everything.
Do you usually play on sessions you produce?
I go back and forth. Sometimes, it’s just too many things to
do at the same time, so I have some great bass players who are
also very patient with me suggesting things. David Piltch played
on Thomas’ record; I work with him quite a bit. I’ve been a fan of
Lee Sklar since I was a kid, and I love using him on records, too.
How did it feel to “replace” Ray Brown on The Merv Griffin
Right when David Letterman’s show became the hot thing,
Merv wanted to “young up” the band, so Ray Brown was one of
the first people to leave. They asked me to come and play, and it
was pretty comical, in my mind, that I was going to replace Ray
Brown. But it was actually pretty fun, and it was a good experience
to be able to play in so many different contexts within a
short amount of time. One day I’d have to play with Buddy Rich,
the next day with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, and then the
next day, B.B. King.
How do you split your time between upright and electric?
If someone calls me to play on a record these days, first of all,
it’s difficult for me to do schedule-wise, but I’m more apt to do it
on electric. I just don’t get a chance to put in enough time on the
upright where I really feel good playing it on a record I’m producing.
Is it true that you had to convince Walter Becker to play
bass on his own Circus Money?
Yes! I produced it and Walter wanted me to play on it, but I felt
adamant that he play on it. People don’t know—he’s serious as a
bass player! He’s got such a deep groove, and the combination of
him and [drummer] Keith Carlock on that record was just amazing.
Do you go on the road often?
Not much these days. In fact, Walter was asking if I wanted to do
the Steely Dan gig for a tour a little ways back. As much as I would
love to, my time right now is better spent making records, and I’ve
got a five-year-old son, so I want to stay home as much as I can.
What’s your take on creating a long-term career in the
Joni always used to say that the quickest way to kill your career
was to have a hit, and maybe that’s true. I certainly like success,
but I don’t make my decisions based on what I think is going to
be a hit. I try to make records that will stand the test of time and
change people as they listen to them. I’ve managed to keep a fairly
pure motivation, and there’s something to be said for the role that
plays in one’s longevity in the music business.