File Larry Coryell’s CDs under “Jazz” if
you must—but for the past five decades the man
many consider to be the Godfather of fusion guitar
has been creating artistically unfettered and genredefying
music that transcends easy classification. Coryell
originally started out playing with rock combos
in the Northwest, before moving to New York City
in his early 20s, logging stints with drummer Chico
Hamilton and vibraphonist Gary Burton, and also
recording an album as the leader of the Free Spirits,
a psychedelic rock quartet that combined jazz
and Eastern influences. In 1969, Coryell tracked
the solo album Spaces, an incendiary “tour de frets”
that also featured John McLaughlin, and is acknowledged
as a seminal moment in the jazz-rock fusion guitar movement.
Coryell then toured briefly with a
“supergroup” alongside ex-Cream bassist
Jack Bruce, Jimi Hendrix Experience
drummer Mitch Mitchell, and keyboardist
Mike Mandell, before he and Mandel
formed jazz-rock quintet the Eleventh
House. The group at times featured trumpeter
Randy Brecker among others, and is
cited alongside the Mahavishnu Orchestra
and Return to Forever as one of the elite
fusion combos of the era.
In the late ’70s, Coryell toured as
one-third of an acoustic guitar trio with
McLaughlin and flamenco guitarist Paco
de Lucia, their virtuosic interplay captured
on 1980’s Meeting of the Spirits: Live at Royal
Albert Hall video.
Over the next few decades, the guitarist
kept active, releasing solo albums, writing a
classic column for GP, and performing and/
or recording with just about every major
jazz and fusion artist on the scene.
Now in his late 60s, the seemingly indefatigable
Coryell is still performing regularly
and promoting not one, but four new
releases: Night of Jazz Guitars [In+Out], with
guitarists Helmut Kagerer, Paulo Morello,
and Andreas Dombert, a guitar quartet collaboration
that uses chamber music-like
arrangements as a jumping off point for
improvisation; Larry Coryell and the Wide
Hive Players [Wide Hive], which pairs the
fusion master with the West Coast funk
studio collective; Duality [Random Acts], a
straight-ahead jazz duo session with pianist
Kenny Drew Jr.; and Montgomery [Patuxent
Music], a CD based on the Montgomery Bus
Boycott of 1955. He’s also recently completed
a solo guitar arrangement of Igor
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Despite his
eclectic musical sojourns however, Coryell
still insists that the blues is at the core
of everything he strives for.
You’ve made four albums in the past year.
Do you have a standard rig, or does it change
depending on the situation?
My best guitar is a ’67 Gibson Super
400, which I only play on gigs that I can
drive to. I used that guitar on Duality. Otherwise,
I mostly play a blonde semi-acoustic
hollowbody made by Washburn under
the Parker imprint. I also play a Washburn/
Parker Event Series acoustic steel-string.
For Night of Jazz Guitars I played either the
Event Series or borrowed a Gibson L-5
from one of the guys. I swear by my Jazz-
Kat BluesKat amp, and I also have a Henriksen,
and a mid-’70s Fender Twin that I
use for the occasional loud gig. By the way,
I normally don’t like everything I do, but
I think all four of those albums are great.
Let’s start with Night of Jazz Guitars.
That’s a great recording to have if you’re
18 or 19 years old, and you’re just starting to explore jazz guitar, because there’s so
much jazz guitar vocabulary on it. It’s
straight-ahead Django and Pat Martinotype
Are you using four-part, classical-style
arrangements as a springboard for improvisation
on some tunes?
I wondered if Helmut, Paulo, and Andreas
had even heard of me, but they’d been listening
to my music for years and understood
where I was coming from. I had originally
written one of the pieces we did—“Tender
Tears: Theme and Variations”—as a string
quartet, and I adapted it for four guitars.
Did you prepare differently for each project,
or did you just go in and do your thing.
I prep for each new project individually.
With the Wide Hive CD, they kept sending
me stuff and I didn’t just want to do
all of their compositions, so I balanced it
with a few of my own. I brought in more
What’s an example?
On the song “Moody on My Mind,”
I just had a musical conversation with
myself by overdubbing a melancholy
melody over some changes I’d laid down
previously. It’s in homage to [jazz saxophonist]
James Moody who had passed
right around the time we were recording.
The other thing I wrote that I think was
a good foil to their straight-ahead funk
compositions was “One for T.G.,” which
is in 5/4, and I honestly don’t know how
to categorize it. I originally wrote it for
the whole band but we couldn’t make the
arrangement work, so we reduced it to
just piano and guitar.
It’s actually too bad there’s no room for
jazz on mainstream radio anymore because
there’s a composition of theirs on the CD
called “Terco,” which falls on the ears as
nicely as [saxophonist Grover Washington
Jr.’s hit song] “Mr. Magic” or [trumpeter
Lee Morgan’s hit song] “The Sidewinder”
did in their time. Radio was more eclectic
back in the ’60s and ’70s, and that’s why
musicians then were able to get so good—
because the popular stuff they were exposed
to was really good. You would hear John
Coltrane, Billy Taylor, and Horace Silver on
mainstream radio. I think if this record had
been released in the ’60s or ’70s it would’ve
had a bigger impact.
You’ve also just completed a solo guitar
arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
What were some of the challenges with that?
The whole thing man, the whole thing!
I couldn’t always replicate the dense harmonies
of the original score, so I had to
make choices about when one voice was
more important than another. I based it on
a piano reduction of the music, and sometimes
I had to simplify things or change
keys, but I think I captured the essence of
it. I’m supposed to get a cutaway guitar on
loan from Martin in the next few days, and
I’m going to try and record it then.
How did the collaboration with Kenny Drew
Jr. come about?
I’d always wanted to play with him, but
I never felt I was good enough or had chops
enough. We started to play a little together
though, because we both live down here in
Florida. We did some of his tunes, some of
my tunes, and some standards. Next thing
I know, we’re in the studio.
Like Night of Jazz Guitars, Duality is a very
straight-ahead jazz recording. You played rock
in the early ’60s and fusion in the ‘70s, so did you
develop your traditional jazz vocabulary later on?
I began developing it when I was in high
school, but it’s difficult and takes years. I’m
still learning it. It’s taken me a lifetime to
understand that the notes you choose and
the chords you play are secondary. It’s really
an art, not a craft.
Was there something in your compositional
approach on Montgomery that directly tied into
the Montgomery bus boycott?
I really go for something that exists only
in the world of music, but because I have a
particular humanistic motivation, it hopefully
comes out alongside of it. I could play Montgomery
for someone and not tell him or her
what the title was, and I don’t think they’d
surmise what it’s about. Aside from “Along
Dexter Avenue,” which is a blues-like composition,
it’s just jazz music.
Montgomery swings hard despite the fact
that it’s a guitar/upright bass/piano trio record
with no drums.
Well, when the Africans were first brought
to this country, the slave owners took away
their drums and they had to make their
own rhythm, so I figured we’d make our
own rhythms, too. Jazz and the blues are
largely a uniquely African American music,
and that’s why for me, coming from a non-
African American background, it was hard
to sort out the order of importance of the
elements in the music. All these years later,
I’ve come to believe that the most important
thing is the emotion.
How do you create emotion in your music?
To me, you have to understand the blues
on a fundamental level. So much so, that when
you play jazz, it doesn’t necessarily sound
like the blues—but it sounds like something
that’s important. I can’t really verbalize it,
but it’s not your typical rock guitar player
taking pentatonic scales and copying Jeff
Beck or Eric Clapton’s copying of B. B. King.
Back in the ’60s, I remember playing a
gig supporting Albert King, and after the
show he grabbed me and said, “You’re not
playin’ the blues, man, you’re not playin’
the blues.” I took that to heart and I’ve
thought about it my whole life. Over the
years, I’ve come to my own understanding,
and I believe the blues is the foundation
of all the great music that came out
of the ’60s. Bob Dylan understands the
blues, Bobby McFerrin understands the
blues, Kenny Drew Jr. understands the
blues, Stanley Cowell the jazz piano player
that can also play all the European classical
music, still understands the blues. It’s
beyond the notes. I’m reading W.C. Handy’s
autobiography [Father of the Blues: An
Autobiography] and in it he explains how
he would recall the sound of a ploughman
or the sounds that came out of crap
games when he was growing up, and how
that came out in his music. That’s what
I’m talking about.
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