Larry Coryell–Visionary Of Modern Jazz Guitar [1943-2017]

Over the years I hope I’ve become more of a musician and less of a guitarist

Larry Coryell

Wait till the honeying of the lune love!  Die eve, little eve, die!  We see that wonder in your eye. We’ll meet again, we’ll part once more.  The spot I’ll seek if the hour you’ll find.  My chart shines high where the blue milk’s upset.  Forgivemequick, I’m going!  Bubye!

James Joyce

How Many Times Do We Tell Someone We Love Them, Not Realizing Our Most Recent Embrace And Affectionate Greeting Of HELLO Is Actually…GOODBYE. Larry Was A Dear Friend And An Inspiration For Going On 50 Years.

Friday Evening, February 17, 2017, At The Iridium In Midtown Manhattan, Was Such A Wonderful Hang, And Larry Truly Humbled THE [c]HIPSTER[n] By Introducing Me To Everyone As “MY TEACHER.” 

He Played An Inspired Set And I Was Struck By How When He Got Up Off Of His Stool, And Played Standing, He Kind Of Squatted Down, Really Digging In Emotionally, And Suddenly I Was Transported To Slugs In 1971, And Here Was My Dream Of A TRULY MODERN GUITARIST INCARNATE, Embodying Wes And Jimi, Bird And Trane. 

On A Conclusive And Overwhelming Arrangement Of Ravel’s BOLERO On An Open-Tuned Acoustic Martin, I Was So Engaged By His Technical Command And Emotional Commitment And Spiritual Transcendence–Putting Me In Mind Of A Legendary Indian Sarod Virtuoso–That You Could Hear Me Shout Out “ALI AKBAR [Coryell].”

I Am Simply Crushed. There Is A Hole In My Life That Cannot Be Filled. A Peaceful Journey Brother Coryell. Or As I Told Him On Friday Evening, In A Variation On UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN, “You Are Often In My Ears, And Always In My Heart.”

 

A PEACEFUL JOURNEY, BROTHER CORYELL

Larry Coryell completed his weekend engagement at Iridium in midtown Manhattan on Saturday evening, February 18, then returned to his hotel to recharge his batteries in anticipation of a number of bold projects he had spoken to me of with such youthful enthusiasm backstage on Friday evening–including operas and music inspired by Igor Stravinsky, Charlie Parker and James Joyce.

And then, without warning, Larry passed away in his sleep on Sunday morning, February 19, 2017, less than two months shy of his 74th birthday.

Larry Coryell was a modern jazz visionary, and I am not sure he really received full credit for the musical revolution he helped foment. If we could only reference his output from roughly 1966 through 1980, he would still retain a rapturous legacy among jazz fans, not to mention an entire generation of guitarists who followed in his footsteps, inspired as much by his fearless example and bold new electric guitar tonality, as for the actual notes he played…

Trailblazers who plotted their own musical pathways, such as John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Mike Stern, among many, many others. Not to mention all of the players who were inspired by his ongoing commitment to the acoustic guitar in memorable collaborations with such master players as Ralph Towner, Phillip Catherine, Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin.

Larry’s mid-60s emergence with the ensembles of Chico Hamilton and Gary Burton heralded a bold, new border-less conception of modern jazz in its traditional and free form manifestations, and an all-encompassing post-modernist vision of jazz guitar, clearly rooted in both Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker, Chet Atkins and Hank Garland, Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, Julian Bream and Paco DeLucia.

When Larry Coryell began exploring music that reverentially–unapologetically–referenced ’60s free form-progressive sources from Coltrane through Cream, and timeless folk and classical sources from the global village, there wasn’t even a handy, dandy, one-size-fits-all, simplistic library card with which to categorize a musician who revered with equal passion 20th century classical, bebop, the hard blues, country & western, flamenco, Indian classical, opera, Miles Davis…and so it became known by the awkward sobriquet, FUSION.

Fusion? Like the meanest of all beasts: the head of a crocodile tethered to the head of an insurance adjuster? Do tell. Well then, how do he play chord changes? He don’t, that’s what make him so mean. Badaboom.

Coryell was notable for his presence among the very first fusion bands, such as The Free Spirits, and more significantly, The Gary Burton Quartet, which counted among its members, the remarkable vibraphone virtuoso, Gary Burton, the innovative composer and iconic bass guitarist Steve Swallow, and such exemplary drummers as Bobby Moses, Stu Martin and the great Roy Haynes, who had long ago defied easy pigeonholing through his work with as wide a range of master musicians as Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, before putting the pedal to the metal with Coryell on a series of thrilling encounters, such as:

“1-2-3-4” from the Burton Quartet’s 1967 classic, DUSTER

“Gonna Get Some Right Now” with Chico Hamilton alumni, alto saxophonist Arnie Lawrence and bassist Richard Davis on the latter’s 1968 showcase, LOOK TOWARD A DREAM

…and “Gypsy Queen” from Coryell’s Electric Ladyland Studio collaboration with the other side of Jimi Hendrix’s heartbeat, engineer Eddie Kramer, on BAREFOOT BOY, from 1971.

Likewise, as Larry evolved a fresh perspective on the tone of the modern electric guitar, while extrapolating new hybrids of jazz, blues and rock, he always seemed to possess the kind of rhythmic propulsion and fire that inspired drummers to engage him on a cathartic level.

Among his most memorable rhythmic firestorms were a mano a mano tete a tete with the great Elvin Jones, “Stiff Neck,” from his first album as a leader in 1968, LADY CORYELL…it is worth remembering when listening to this emotive colloquy, that Elvin Jones also played guitar, so it’s not surprising that Larry waved his red cape, Elvin took the bait and like Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, he charged.

Then there was “The Jam With Albert,” a ferocious Cream-inspired trio throw-down with master funk/R&B drummer Bernard Purdie, and legendary west coast bassist Albert Stinson, who left us all too soon. Coryell’s lines and riffs are supercharged by a raw, distortion-inflected blues tone, conferring a relentless feeling of inevitability to this improvisation, culminating in a fierce emotional catharsis.

And then there is a remarkable quartet encounter that not only features fellow fusion icon, guitarist John McLaughlin, but Weather Report co-founder, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra energizer, drummer Billy Cobham, in a performance of Julie Coryell’s title tune to the album SPACES that features one of Coryell’s most revered solos, a masterpiece of rhythmic engagement in which Coryell builds chorus after chorus of tension over a rollicking tempo, as McLaughlin feeds him some of the hippest chords imaginable, allowing Larry to achieve an emotional resonance that enraptured aspiring guitarists of that era and subsequent generations, who while they venerated the likes of Johnny Smith and Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney and Barney Kessel and Kenny Burrell, wanted in their heart of hearts to channel their inner John Coltrane-Sonny Rollins-Ornette Coleman-Eric Dolphy-Wayne Shorter.

During this formative period Larry also participated in Herbie Mann’s famous MEMPHIS UNDERGROUND session, yet another fusion milestone, with free form guitarist Sonny Sharrock, and participated in a short-lived super-group chaired by ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, featuring the Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, as well as keyboardist Mike Mandel, who went on to collaborate in Larry’s working band of the early 1970s, Foreplay, as documented on the album OFFERING.

Still, for all of his remarkable creative output from this period, I can recall a sense of frustration on Larry’s part (not unlike that of drummer Tony Williams after the dissolution of his original edition of Lifetime), as the likes of Weather Report, Return To Forever and most dramatically, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, seemed to rocket to prominence and popular acclaim on the foundation of things that to a significant degree, Coryell had initiated. However, with the formation of Larry Coryell & The Eleventh House, which in its original iteration featured keyboardist Mandel as well as trumpeter Randy Brecker (soon to be replaced by Mike Lawrence), Larry was able to finally tap into the rising tide of mid-70s fusion. Of course, the most significant aspect of The Eleventh House was the dynamic interplay between Larry and yet another fantastic drummer, the electrifying Alphonse Mouzon, whose super-charged polyrhythmic funk galvanized Larry’s playing–a creative bond which the two friends revisited periodically over the decades, culminating in a reunion band and a 2017 album release, so sadly marred by the recent passing of both the drummer and the guitarist.

And while in closing out the 1970s, Larry found himself on the off-ramp to dissolution, he nevertheless continued to push the creative envelope, participating in some significant collaborations with some of his greatest influences, on some unreleased studio sessions with Miles Davis, with Sonny Rollins on DON’T ASK, and on Charles Mingus’ best selling Atlantic super session, 3 OR 4 SHADES OF BLUE, with Philip Catherine (with whom he made some of his best solo recordings to close out the decade.

Larry looked back ruefully on this period in his life, taking stock as he did of what he viewed as things that were keeping him from finding peace and achieving his creative goals. In talking with Larry just the other night, he spoke proudly to friends of emerging from the 1980s with both body and spirit intact; of 37 years of sobriety; of the transformative power of Buddhism
in his life, and of his how his work as a composer had deepened, while his sensibility as a jazz improviser had grown more…graceful. When I kidded him about how in his dotage he had grown progressively slower, he smiled broadly and commented “That’s how it’s supposed to be.” The body of work he left behind over this period of time was enormous, and again, for some strange reason, despite the extraordinary range of stylistic contexts, the depth and relaxation of his guitar playing, and his ever-deepening musicality, he still seems to have flown under the radar as far as the kind of recognition long-time enthusiasts such as myself felt he deserved.

Still, he put out so much good music as his command of the jazz vocabulary and a commitment to the art of swinging grew ever deeper–as witnessed by his work with master drummer Beaver Harris, bassist Buster Williams and pianist Stanley Cowell on this performance of “Moment’s Notice,” and more recently in some exceptional trio performances: as exemplified by a fine working group of this past decade or so with bassist Mark Egan and drummer Paul Wertico; an epic 2012 trio performances with organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Jimmy Cobb; and last year’s dramatic interplay with Dylan Taylor on the master bassist’s ONE IN MIND, which featured a remarkable degree of conversational funk and swing between Larry and the innovative drummer Mike Clark, an ideal pairing I was most certainly looking forward to hearing a great deal more of in the near future, Larry and Mike being two of my fave musicians and people, but then, we are all playing with the house’s money, are we not. It wasn’t meant to be.

You see, in the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that as a scribe, a guitarist and as a friend, I was always rooting for Larry Coryell. Which doesn’t mean I was given to blowing smoke up his ass, and Larry always encouraged me to fire away with both barrels, trusting as he was of my ears and of my heart. Why did I root for Larry Coryell? First and foremost, was because he championed a movement,which to my mind elevated the emotional and technical range of the guitar to reflect not only the breakthroughs of both Wes and Jimi (and Jim Hall), but because he reflected such a profound bond with all of the hippest jazz post-modernists, such as Miles and Trane and Bill Evans, whom so many guitarists of my generation were seeking to emulate.   Nor was it a matter of his sheer technical command, which was formidable, as the fact that Larry always exemplified an aspirational approach to music, a sense of curiosity and a willingness to rise high above the crowd without a net; to fail as he might; more often than not, to ascend, to push the envelope, or as Dizzy Gillespie once reassured me, “I ain’t one of them cats sitting on a mountaintop. I’m a student–just like you.”

Larry was an aspirant, a student, still pushing the envelope of his artistic development right down to the end…which still seems surreal to say out loud, so vivid is his living legacy and my experience of him as a cat and of his music barely 72 hours ago…as illustrated so poignantly by his duet with the Carnatic violin master L.Subramaniam, on their ironically entitled performance of “Love Is Stronger Than Death” from 1999, and in the spiritual serendipity of his collaboration with Badi Assad and John Abercrombie on the latter’s “Timeless.”

And conclusively, in as fitting an epitaph for this slap-dash, cobbled-together memorial as I can think of, Larry’s raga-esque variations on Ravel’s “Bolero” with which he closed out his opening set at Iridium this past Friday night–illustrative as it is of the orchestral dimensions Larry Coryell could elicit from naught but a solitary acoustic guitar.

Which elicits recollections of a more formal memorial service from some years back for the great drummer Freddie Waits, wherein his friend and mentor Max Roach allowed as how “The way in which we defeat death is through acceptance.”

Love is indeed stronger than death, though I am not feeling terribly accepting as I lurch from the emotional peak of Friday’s opening set at Iridium, and precious time shared with my friend, to a salty swift goodbye. Larry not only left behind a remarkable musical legacy, but he was a genuinely generous person in terms of the encouragement and support and enthusiasm he shared with his fellow musicians, at all levels of achievement.

Or as Art Blakey once told me in no uncertain terms. “Man, ain’t no armored cars following your hearse to the cemetery. The only thing that follows you is RESPECT.”

Much love and respect, Brother Coryell. Much love and respect.

Often in our ears. Always in our heart.

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3 comments on “Larry Coryell–Visionary Of Modern Jazz Guitar [1943-2017]
  1. Marc Alan Minick says:

    I read your words over and over and over again as I visioned my own life and it’s many fastballs and curves. Larry Coryell was an immense guitarist and six-string pioneer.
    Thank you for capturing his musical journey while your emotions are raw. I only wish I had the luxury of experiencing his final performance. I will hold on to memories of Larry Coryell shows from days gone bye.
    Rest in Peace

  2. Mark Rowland says:

    Chip, thank you for this beautiful, knowing and heartfelt remembrance of one of the giants of our age. I never got the chance to meet Larry but adored him from afar, and still tingle at the memory of discovering his electric brew of inspiration at the Jazz Workshop in Boston back in 1970. And then a few other times over the years, culminating last year at Catalina’s in L.A., where, as you suggest, he got ‘slower’ but deeper than ever. Maybe his lack of becoming a household ‘name’ among casual fans is due, ironically, to the panoply of musical interests he pursued, which your clip selection here illustrates so grandly. But of course that’s also the key to his genius and his soul. Your writing about ‘rooting’ for Larry and his never-ending aspirations made me well up…he won’t leave us anytime soon…

  3. Howard says:

    Very eloquent and very sad. So sorry for your personal loss. And thank you so much for sharing all of your thoughts and the great music.

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