The Godfather of Fusion: An Unpublished Interview with Larry Coryell

Larry Coryell was one of the most influential guitar players of the 20th Century and beyond.
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Larry Coryell was one of the most influential guitar players of the 20th Century and beyond. His pioneering style of jazz-rock electric-guitar playing in the 1960s was revolutionary, and it spurred the entire fusion movement that came of age in the 1970s—especially when Coryell formed his own jazz-fusion band, The Eleventh House, in 1973.

I was very fortunate to work with Coryell in late 2016—a few months before his passing at 73 years old on February 19 of this year—when he contributed to my album Orlando in Heaven. The album is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the June 12, 2016, Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. Partial proceeds from Orlando in Heaven will benefit Catholic Charities of Central Florida, which provides support services for the Pulse victims and their families. Coryell lived in Orlando at the time of the attack.

“I was in the hospital recovering from complications from a sinus surgery, and I thought the nurses were joking when they told me the whole thing,” remarked Coryell when I took the opportunity to interview him about his career in between sessions. “I was in a state, because I was literally on the eighth floor of the hospital where the victims were brought into the emergency room. I felt so bad. What occurred at the Pulse nightclub should never happen again. We artists have to do everything we can to educate and enlighten and inspire the world in which we live.”

Highlights from our discussion—which remained unpublished until now—are shared here for Guitar Player readers. I hope they serve to celebrate Coryell’s life, as well as offer insights that all guitarists can learn from and take as inspiration.


“I was born as Lorenz Albert Van DeLinder III,” said Coryell. “My biological father was a jazz pianist named Lorenzo Albert Van DeLinder, and my mother was interested in him partially because she was hoping he would teach her how to play piano like he did. But, after I was born, he already had another girlfriend that he had made pregnant, and my mother never saw him again. I would have liked to see what he looked like, and I would have loved to hear him play. In 1948, my mother married Jean Coryell, who was a great guy, and he adopted me.”


“I was told by my parents that I started playing the piano at the age of four. But I had my eyes on the guitar because it was sexy—it was more contemporary. But my hands were too small, so I had to wait until I was about 15 for my hands to get big enough to play. And when they did, I was off to the races! I took lessons from a wonderful jazz guitar teacher, and he gave me enough information so that when I graduated from high school and went to the University of Washington in 1961, I was ready to try to get some gigs to help pay for my college.”


“I initially listened to Barney Kessel, Chet Atkins, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Smith, but when I heard Wes Montgomery, all bets were off. Wes had brilliant ideas. It was the big thumb that really did it for everybody. We would just go into rapture when Wes would do the octaves. We couldn’t fathom how he could do it. Wes played a jazz club in downtown Seattle around 1963 with the Montgomery Brothers, and I wasn’t 21 yet, so somebody lent me their ID. I got in, and I think the first tune they played was a Latin thing called ‘Black Orchid.’ Then they did ‘Green Dolphin Street,’ and I don’t remember anything after that, because I was so blown away. This was my first time seeing a consummate jazz performance by a genius.”


“I dropped out of school by the end of 1964, and I went to the ‘University of the Streets of New York City.’ I heard [saxophonist] Charles Lloyd the first night I was in New York, and I had no idea what his band was playing. There was nothing in my record collection like it—and nothing I had heard on the radio, or at someone’s house, or in a jam session. In New York, it was all about cutting edge, and I said, ‘I think I’m going to stay here.’

“When I first got to New York, though, I was doing poverty gigs. We couldn’t even afford a bass player. It was just vibes, drums, and me at the Crossways Idlewild Inn near the airport in New York [JFK airport was originally called Idlewild]. But, because there was no bass player, I had the freedom to play whatever I wanted, so I started playing Beatles lines in the middle of songs. It worked, and I knew it would. I wanted to start a movement where we could open up our musicality to all kinds of music, as long as the ideas we borrowed from pop music or other forms were good ideas. And the Beatles were not just a band—they were a force. They were like Mother Teresa, because they transcended everything.”


“At that time in the early 1960s, New York City was a huge melting pot for musicians and new ideas. We all wanted to do innovative stuff, but we didn’t want to get away from jazz as much as augment it every once in a while. But the great thing about New York in ’65 is that the quality of rock and roll playing went way up. So when I added rock to jazz, it was very organic.”


“I would teach John something that I knew, and he would come back and teach me a raga. The rules were that you could only play notes in the scale, and if I went out of the scale, John would say, ‘Stop! It’s not in the scale.’ It took me a while to get comfortable with it, but I liked the discipline of Indian music. I could play it, but not as well as John, and we jammed with a lot of Indian musicians. It’s a great body of music they have, and what we have in common with Indian musicians is improvisation.

“It was so funny when John was playing with Miles Davis. An interviewer for Rolling Stone magazine—and I’m not going to criticize the journalist—said that John was a rock and roller. But Miles said John was no more a rock musician than he was. Miles, man, he got the word. He saw that he wanted to change and go into another direction where he could open up, and he became a huge star because of that.”


“Jimi’s tunes were deep. I miss him. We were close. We were both from Seattle, although we never met each other back home. But I would make suggestions before he would go into the studio [in New York], and he often took them. We would jam. It was nothing to speak of, really. We’d play blues. Jimi would play a right-handed bass left handed, and everybody was stoned.”


“At the end of the ’60s, we realized that it wouldn’t hurt to bring in electric bass, but it had to be the kind of player who was sensitive to the jazz sensibility. Also, right around the time I got to New York, the electric bass was getting a really good sound—almost like an organ. The original bass player in the Eleventh House was a guy named Danny Trifan. We also had Alphonse Mouzon on drums, Mike Mandel on keyboards, and the great Randy Brecker on trumpet.”


“I enjoy orchestrating very much. I’ve written a lot of classical stuff—operas and symphonies. In fact, I’ve written some duets with piano and guitar that are unplayable. I can’t play the guitar part yet. You see, I believe we should go beyond our capacity in order to increase our capacity. Preferably, however, we do this in the privacy of our own homes, so the cacophony is not distributed among the unbelieving masses.”