Neil Larsen, BC (Before Cohen)

Neil Larsen

While Neil Larsen – The Impeccable, Nearly Invisible Leonard Cohen World Tour Keyboardist featured Neil Larsen’s important but rarely spotlighted role in the Leonard Cohen tour band, today’s entry focuses on his extra-Cohen musical career.

The following excerpts from Neil Larsen by Andy Argyrakis1 characterize not only Larsen’s role in Leonard Cohen’s band but also his status as an independent musician; the first line (emphasis mine) is especially telling:

The name Neil Larsen might not immediately jump off the page to average music fans, but to those in the know, he’s a legendary keyboardist with credits on some 150 prominent albums. And he just so happens to be on one of this decade’s most anticipated tours, linking up with the legendary Leonard Cohen for a several-leg stint across the globe.

… Much of that magnetism and warmth is enhanced from Larsen’s own playing in Cohen’s band, where he tickles the Hammond B3, along with the Wurlitzer EP200 electric piano (”That Don’t Make It Junk”) and the Yamaha DX-7 electric piano (”Ain’t No Cure For Love”). …

… Outside of his stage conquests, Larsen’s been a go-to guy in the studio, starting with television jingles in New York, followed by countless album sessions. His first two collaborations were with singer/songwriter Don McLean and classic rockers Foghat, though he found much more success after heading west.

“I eventually moved to Los Angeles where there seemed to be more work and began working with producers: Tommy Lipuma, Russ Titleman, Herb Alpert, and others,” he recalls. “Again [there were], many different types of music and I enjoyed the challenge. At one point, I went from working with Rick Springfield right to Miles Davis.”

As his performance stock throughout such sessions grew, so did the prominence of the performers who called upon his recording and touring services. The piano man’s résumé also includes George Harrison, Whitney Houston, B.B. King, Kenny Loggins, Rickie Lee Jones, Gregg Allman, and Jimmy Cliff. “I like the several records I’ve done with B.B. King, including his last [One Kind Favor], and I’m proud of the ones I did with Rickie Lee Jones,” he reflects. “I drive home after the session with more than a paycheck. I have a feeling of making a musical contribution to what could be a great project that will always be there to listen to. This is a reward for a session musician instead of the applause of a live audience. The drive home, thinking ‘I did it!,’ knowing people will eventually hear it.”

While King and Jones may have been his personal favorites, one can’t help but pick Larsen’s brain about the late great Beatle or get his take on Houston’s comeback attempt. “I’d love to see Whitney do it again – I’m a fan,” he asserts, before reflecting upon Harrison. “It’s very sad not to have George around. The world can’t afford to lose such a big representative of peace. He was a good guy and very sincere about his beliefs.”

Besides his work for others, Larsen’s also an accomplished solo artist who even has a Grammy nomination under his own name. While this particular season is tied up with the Cohen road trip, individual albums are never far from the switch hitter’s mind. “I’m not around to do much recording because of our touring, but I’ve done a couple of album projects this year, and worked on a film soundtrack with Elvis Costello,” he adds. “The last solo album I did, Orbit, was a direct-to-disc record produced by my old buddy, Stewart Levine. It’s a good format for me and hopefully I can do another project like this soon.”

Neil Larsen with Gregg Allman: New Orleans, 2007 (from Neil Larsen website)

Another write-up, Under The Radar, No. 2: Neil Larsen by Paul Rosano at TheTrickIsMusic (Oct 1, 2009), points out

In 1978, keyboardist/composer Neil Larsen released his first solo album, a touchstone in the fusion genre. … Jungle Fever did well enough on first release but wasn’t a chartbuster by any means. Still, it made a lasting impression on the music scene.

He followed it with a similar collection on High Gear (1979), almost as artistically successful, then enjoyed genuine chart success with Feiten in the Larsen-Feiten Band (1980) and a reprise of Full Moon (1982) featuring the two. Both Larsen-Feiten albums brought pop into the mix along with Larsen’s usual influences and crossed over to the Billboard 100.

During the 1980s, he became an influential and very much in-demand studio musician. …

Rosano goes on to observe

But there is no Neil Larsen web site per se and although you can find him in Wikipedia, there is no page dedicated to him. Despite his influential status in the music community and accomplished playing and composing, he simply is not well known to the public in general.

The most thorough biography appears to be Straightahead Records review of Larsen’s album, Orbit. The initial portion follows:

Neil Larsen is a composer/keyboard player from Florida that has been successful in several different fields. As a recording artist, he has recorded four solo albums, one of which was nominated for a Grammy. After teaming up with guitarist Buzz Feiten, they recorded two albums with their band Full Moon, and one with the Larsen-Feiten Band, which included the top ten single, “Who’ll Be the Fool Tonight”. As a session musician, Neil Larsen has played on over 150 albums, including three with George Harrison, three with Kenny Loggins (and the single “Footloose”), Whitney Houston, Jimmy Cliff and 4 albums with Rickie Lee Jones, including the single, “Chuckie’s in Love”. His string and horn arrangements are featured on albums by Gregg Allman and B.B. King among others.

As a composer, Neil has written over 60 songs on various albums, including albums by George Benson (“Weekend in L.A.” & “20-20” ), Gregg Allman (“Playin’ Up a Storm”), Rickie Lee Jones (“Girl at her Volcano”), Will Smith (“Willenium”) and Miles Davis (“The Complete Montreaux Recordings”) …

The Music Of Neil Larsen

Update: Neil Larsen released a new album in 2015. He also has an official website, NeilLarsen.net, which includes information about and samples from his New Album: Forlana.

The true test of a musician’s quality, of course, is the music itself. (OK, in addition to Neil’s music, I also get off on the cover art of his High Gear album seen above). I’ve chosen three performances from the several videos available online. While these fail to indicate the extensive range of his work, they are representative – and impressive.

Before the videos, however, I want to introduce one other indicator of Neil Larsen’s musical capacities – fan comments. On sites like YouTube and Amazon, one finds numerous comments about Larsen that range from deep appreciation to unabashed adulation. I’ve listed below a few examples from YouTube entries made about Jungle Fever:

I still remember that day in 1978 or 79. I went to the record store, the owner a friend of mine has always been a great fan of Neal Larsen. Virtually all windows were covered up with “Jungle Fever” to me the greatest … Till the end of my life I will listen to “Jungle Fever.” Thank you guys, out there in this fierce world.

The Jungle Fever album. Remarkable work by Neil Larsen and Buzz Feiten. One of the few fusion projects that have withstood the test of time. I never get tired of listening to any of the tracks on this album.

I just love it when I can find rare gems like this, and I also love finding other people remember such excellent, hardly-ever-heard songs such as this!

Great underrated song that you never hear anywhere and it’s also impossible to find in store

What can one say .. one of Neils beautiful timeless compositions and one of Buzzy’s most fabulous solos .. too delicious for words really . May they live forever .. thank you Buzz & Neil for so much pleasure .

I’ve heard this song about over twenty years ago – and it´s still one of my favorites.

Neil Larsen – Music Videos

Neil Larsen – Jungle Fever
Video from QuinhoMaluku

Neil Larsen Band – High Gear

Neil Larsen – Sudden Samba

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Mar 31, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.

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  1. Illinois Entertainer: Sept 30, 2009 []

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