Larry Coryell

February 6, 2012

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 playing.

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 jazz harmony.

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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