When Larry Coryell passed away in his hotel room in the early morning of February 19, 2017, I soon realized I not only lost my dad, but so many others lost a guitar hero dubbed, “the Godfather of Fusion.” Larry died in New York, after completing a weekend at the Iridium Jazz Club. He was a true player to the end. Those who attended his final performance testified he was on top of his game, and he left to a standing ovation. I remember thinking at his memorial service that I would never have the pleasure and excitement of playing with him again. This makes carrying on his legacy all the more important.
Keyboardist Mike Mandel—a long-time bandmate and friend—recalls that while Larry was enrolled at college in Washington state, another student told him, “You’ll never be as good as Dave Brubeck.” This motivated Larry to practice relentlessly and dedicate his life to music.
Photo Credit: M. Montreys
Growing up as the son of Larry Coryell in the 1970s, I was surrounded by people like Miles Davis and Jimmy Webb. The result was I was so intimidated that I avoided the guitar until I was 15 years old. As a beginner, I remember struggling with the “easy” stuff, and, nearly in tears, explaining to my dad that I really wanted to be a good guitar player. He said, “Son, just worry about being a good person.”
He shared with me something that John McLaughlin told him: “It’s all about fingering. If it’s too hard, you’re not playing it right. If your hand hurts, change your technique.” He recognized my attraction to blues music and steered me in that direction. Typical of many genius parents who often don’t have the patience to teach their own children, my father sent me to his duo partner at the time, guitarist Brian Keane, for lessons. Dad told me to come back when I was “good enough” to play something with him. This is when every playing experience with him became a lesson in music and life. Learning about the music business was as much preparation for me as the actual learning of music itself.
As I developed as an artist in my own right, and became a more proficient musician, my father was proud to feature me in his shows. Drummer Harry Wilkinson described Larry as “a positive instigator.” Larry played and excelled at all genres of music. As much as he was known for dazzling and inspiring solos, he was an equally great rhythm guitarist. He once noted, “It sounds like a symphony when I back you up. You need to do that for me!” This came in handy later, when I would work with Richie Havens, Duke Robillard, Joe Louis Walker, and others. There is an art to coming up with good complementary parts.
A benefit of having Larry as my dad was that he was able to show me how Jimi Hendrix played “Little Wing,” “Foxy Lady,” or any other song. He also taught me the correct 9th-chord voicing for “Hideaway” by Freddie King, as well as his own works I admired such as “Elementary Guitar Solo #5.” Another benefit was his connection with so many great musicians. He gave me John Scofield’s phone number when I could not figure out the changes to his song “Protocol,” and this is when I found out from John: “There are no set changes. Improvising is based on an osti-nato bass line.”
I was proud to feature my father on some of my own recordings. One stand-out session was the recording of “Mother’s Day,” a song about the passing of my mother, Julie, dad’s first wife. This was a subject deeply personal to both of us, and the emotion can clearly be heard.
When he passed, I felt that some part of my dad’s spirit went into me. Recordings, children, and knowledge are all forms of immortality. Dad left a legacy of all three. And yet, a tremendous amount of talent and knowledge was lost with the passing of Larry Coryell. Through a career that spanned six decades, he lived through some of the most turbulent and creative points in music history. He was a pioneer in his field. He changed the way people played. But, never one to rest on his accomplishments, he was always seeking the next musical challenge—including writing and performing two full-length operas. Perhaps Bernard Purdie summed Larry up best when he said, “He just wanted to play.”