During the half-dozen years following the release of Miles Davis’ 1969 landmark, Bitches Brew, jazz-rock fusion ruled, with Davis, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and Return to Forever helming the movement. But while most members of these groups came from primarily jazz backgrounds, there was one rogue guitarist who had dipped equally into both the jazz and rock pools, lending him the advantage of having experienced the best of both worlds. In fact, by 1973, Larry Coryell had already played and/or recorded with jazz drum legend Chico Hamilton, vibraphone virtuoso Gary Burton, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, Jack Bruce, Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell, and yes, Jimi Hendrix. He had also released a string of seminal genre-bending solo albums, been a member of the Free Spirits, and co-starred alongside McLaughlin and Corea on the now-legendary Spaces album, thus cementing his status as one of the true forefathers of jazz-rock fusion guitar.
Ironically the same year that Mahavishnu imploded, 1973 also marked the debut of the Eleventh House, Coryell’s first group effort as a leader. In a move almost reminiscent of how Led Zeppelin filled the void left after Cream disbanded, Coryell assembled the best musicians he could find and set out to take the fusion world by storm. The Eleventh House was originally comprised of Coryell (who at the time endorsed the Hagstrom Swede and Mutron effects by Musitronics), Randy Brecker on trumpet (later replaced by Mike Lawrence), keyboard wizard Mike Mandel, bassist Danny Trifan (later replaced by John Lee), and drummer extraordinaire Alphonse Mouzon. The band’s lineup, particularly the inclusion of Brecker as Coryell’s main instrumental foil, set them apart from their contemporaries.
Of course, Coryell’s solo chops are to die for, but we’re here today to explore the harmonic designs, melodic ensemble interplay, and monstrous grooves found throughout the band’s small-but-mighty back catalog, which is why I’ve placed Larry Coryell, the Eleventh House, and their first two albums, Introducing the Eleventh House (1974) and Level One (1975), under investigation.
Introducing the Eleventh House takes flight with the aptly-named “Bird-fingers,” a soaring 11/8 workout that features Alphonse Mouzon’s furious eight-bar drum intro prefacing the song’s head, or melody. The 11/8 meter is subdivided into 3+3+3+2, or 6/8+5/8 (check out how the first half of the bass line creates a two-against-three polyrhythm), and the head features Coryell echoing the blazing, one-bar pentatonic lines played in unison by Randy Brecker and Mike Mandel. Ex. 1 illustrates Coryell’s response to the identical opening trumpet and keyboard phrase, so we’re actually starting at bar 2 of the melody. The line utilizes the third mode of G pentatonic minor (or the second mode of Bb pentatonic major) played over a C bass to imply a C Mixolydian/G Dorian tonality. When the line first appears, the trumpet and keys hold the last note (C) for nearly a full measure as Coryell answers with Ex. 1. As soon as he finishes, Coryell cuts his last note short to accommodate the pending key change, and Brecker and Mandel play the same line a half-step higher (G# pentatonic minor over a C# bass). Coryell immediately mirrors the lick in the following measure and the transposed tradeoffs continue down a whole step from our starting point (F pentatonic minor over a Bb bass) where L.C. changes his response. You get a lesson in cool compositional form, an intense 11/8 workout, a chops-building single-note melodic line, and a groovy rule of substitution, all in the space of eleven beats at 294 b.p.m.! Yow!!
“THE FUNKY WALTZ”
This funkifized waltz became a fusion standard by virtue of its ease of playability, infectious melody, and ultra-funky 3/4 groove. Heck, you could even dance to it! The song was recorded in the key of Ab minor, which I’ve lowered a half-step to reduce the number of accidentals in the key signature. Composer Mouzon kicks it off and is joined eight bars later by bassist Trifan playing the simple, “why-didn’t- I-think-of-that?” bass figure shown in Ex. 2a. The four-bar phrase contains only one deviation, much like Miles’ work from the same era, and Mandel adds Fender Rhodes stabs (depicted in the upstemmed part), as well as well as atmospheric whoops and shrieks courtesy of his ARP Odyssey. Once the mood is set, a Mutron-III-effected Coryell enters the sonic picture with the phrase shown in Ex. 2b, this time playing in octaves with Brecker’s trumpet. After a two-bar rest, both follow up with Ex. 2c. Combine both examples to form the full four-bar melody. The only missing pieces are the Bbsus2, Csus2, Dsus2, and Csus2-to-Asus2 hits that follow four rounds of the melody, but these identical voicings are easy to suss—just figure out the first one (Hint: It’s barred at the first fret), and then move it around. Check out L.C.’s solo for some of the gnarliest Mutron-III tones ever!
Coryell himself profiled his composition in one of the numerous instructional columns he authored for GP throughout the ’70s and ’80s (November 1977, to be exact), but it’s cool enough to deserve revisiting. Though the song’s ethereal chord progression eventually serves as a solo backdrop for both Brecker and Coryell, its arpeggiated nature and alternating measures of 8/4 and 6/4 make for a very spooky and satisfying solo piece. Ex. 3a, which represents half of the progression, begins with two 8/4 bars of the “tonic” F#7add4(b9) chord, followed by a bar of 6/4 that features an even spookier (and un-nameable!) arpeggio, plus another 8/4 bar of F#7add4(b9), minus the rhythmic anticipation on the first note. (Fact: Coryell used two phase shifters to further enhance the vibe.) Once you grasp these chord grips and picking patterns, the next four will easily fall into place. To complete the song’s 16-bar progression, play the strange and beautiful arpeggios in Examples 3b,3c,3d, and 3e in sequence, but append each one of these 6/4 beauties with the 8/4 F#7add4(b9) figure from bar 4 of Ex. 3a. Brecker’s lead trumpet melody consists of the first two notes in each 8/4 measure (including anticipations), plus the first and last four notes of every 6/4 bar, all played two octaves higher. It’s creepy, but in a really good way!
“RIGHT ON Y’ALL”
The Eleventh House flavored their unique brand of jazz-rock with more lowdown, greasy funk than perhaps any other post- Miles fusion outfit. Case in point: Another dance-worthy Mouzon number, “Right On Y’all” gets off and running with Coryell’s bubbling Mutron-effected F7 hits punctuated by Brecker’s electric wah-trumpet replies, as depicted in Ex. 4a. Preceded by four bars of IV-chord (Bb7) funk, the ensuing ensemble theme takes shape in Ex. 4b, where the guitar part can be fattened up with the optional notes shown in parentheses. Ex. 4c sets into motion a unison guitar-and-trumpet IV-chord figure that culminates with the harmonized V-chord (C7) lick (arranged here for a single, adventurous guitarist) that appears in the second ending. Complete the song form by transposing up a whole-step (to D), and then another whole-step higher (to E) before y’all come back to the Ex. 4a-based solo section. Right on!
“STRUTTIN’ WITH SUNSHINE”
This up-tempo shuffle is my favorite cut from Level One, the second Eleventh House album Ex. 5a shows how Coryell sets the pace, first by playing a boogie-fied, single-note riff (Gtr. 1), and then by layering a descending chord figure over it (Gtr.2). Ex. 5b’s A-Mixolydian-based guitar and trumpet melody remains deceptively simple until bar 4, where all hell breaks loose with a barrage of sixteenth-notes that rub deliciously against the triplet-based shuffle groove. I used to love getting a disco crowd to dance to this tune, and then hitting them with this sheet of sound. (It went by so fast that they never knew what hit them!) Finish off the eight-bar form by reprising bars 3 and 4 sans the last four notes. For a real mind-bender, have a go at figuring out the harmonized guitar and trumpet bridge after Coryell’s solo, as well as their harmonization of the recapitulated melody that follows. Big fun, monster grooves, and virtuosic soloing await, so track down these two amazing albums and collect your reward!