Master Jazz Guitarist, the Legend, Larry Coryell

By admin on July 23, 2018

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez
HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) — As one of the pioneers of jazz-rock, perhaps the pioneer in the ears of some, Larry Coryell deserves a special place in the history books. He brought what amounted to a nearly alien sensibility to jazz electric guitar playing in the 1960s. A hard-edged, cutting tone, phrasing, and note-bending that owed as much to blues, rock and even country as it did to earlier, smoother bop influences. Yet as a true eclectic, armed with a brilliant technique, he is comfortable in almost every style, covering almost every base from the most decibel-heavy, distortion-laden electric work to the most delicate, soothing, intricate lines on acoustic guitar. Unfortunately, a lot of his most crucial electric work from the ’60s and ’70s is missing on CD, tied up by the erratic reissue schemes of Vanguard, RCA and other labels, and by jazz-rock’s myopically low level of status in the CD era.

Born in Galveston, Texas on April 2, 1943, Coryell grew up in the Seattle, Washington area where his mother introduced him to the piano at the age of 4. He switched to guitar and played rock music while in his teens. He didn’t consider himself good enough to pursue a music career and studied journalism at The University of Washington while simultaneously taking private guitar lessons. By 1965 he had relocated to New York City and began taking classical guitar lessons which would figure prominently in later stages of his career.

Although citing Chet Atkins and Chuck Berry as early influences he also took cues from jazzmen such as John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery. He was also inspired by the popular music of the day by the Beatles, The Byrds and Bob Dylan and worked diligently to meld both rock and jazz stylings into his technique. This was reflected on his debut recording performance on drummer Chico Hamilton’s album The Dealer, where he sounded like Chuck Berry at times with his almost distorted “fat” tone.

In 1966 he formed a psychedelic band called The Free Spirits on which he also sang vocals, played the sitar and did most of the composing. Although conceptually the band’s music conformed to the psychedelic formula with titles like “Bad News Cat” and “I’m Gonna’ Be Free” it foreshadowed jazz rock with more complex soloing by Coryell and sax/flute player, Jim Pepper. However, it wasn’t until three years later after apprenticing on albums by vibraphonist Gary Burton and flutist Herbie Mann and gigging with the likes of Jack Bruce and others that Coryell established his multifarious musical voice, releasing two solo albums which mixed jazz, classical and rock ingredients. In late 1969 he recorded Spaces, the album for which he is most noted.

His career, however, began in era of guitar rock, where he was able to rise for a time with legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and Eric Clapton. As this era came to a close, his musical expression took him on a diverse journey, and though he did not receive the level of commercial fame the aforementioned musicians had, he was still able to make his mark in music by way of the jazz and fusion world. His music continues to influence musicians and fans internationally and will continue to do so for a very long time.

It was a guitar blow-out which also included John McLaughlin who was also sitting on the fence between rock and jazz at the time and the cogitative result formed what many aficionados consider to be the embryo from which the fusion jazz movement of the 1970s emerged. It contained insane tempos and fiery guitar exchanges which were often beyond category, not to mention some innovating acoustic bass work by Miroslav Vitous and power drumming by Billy Cobham both of whom were to make contributions to jazz rock throughout the `70s.

In the early 1970s, he led a group called Foreplay with Mike Mandel, a childhood friend, although the albums of this period, Barefoot Boy, Offering, and The Real Great Escape, were credited only to “Larry Coryell.” He formed the group The Eleventh House in 1973. The album sold well in college towns and the ensemble toured widely. Several of the group’s albums featured drummer Alphonse Mouzon.

Following the breakup of this band, Coryell played mainly acoustic guitar but returned to electric guitar later in the 1970s. He released an album credited with Mouzon and an album with the Brubeck Brothers that was recorded direct-to-disc, a new recording method at the time. He made several acoustic duet albums, two with Belgian guitarist, and former Focus member, Philip Catherine. Their album Twin House (1977), which contained the song “Miss Julie”, drew favorable reviews.

In 1979, Coryell formed The Guitar Trio with fusion guitarist John McLaughlin and flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. The group toured Europe and released a video recorded at Royal Albert Hall in London entitled Meeting of Spirits. In early 1980, Coryell was replaced by Al Di Meola In 2007.

Coryell published an autobiography titled Improvising: My Life in Music. His two sons, Julian Coryell and Murali Coryell, are also involved in the music business.

Herald de Paris Consulting Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez was honored to speak with the jazz legend.

AC: How do you feel about being one of the pioneers of jazz-rock? How would you define what you do as being a jazz-rock pioneer?

LC: I initially aspired to be a straight-ahead jazz musician, but when I moved to New York realized I had to develop an original voice in order to establish myself as a player who had a different approach to creativity.

AC: How do you feel about being one of the pioneers of jazz-rock, how would you define what you do?

LC: Jazz was always the foundation, but, especially during the middle sixties, there was quality pop music, Hendrix, Beatles, etc. that interested me It was good music. It was also the sound of the times.

AC: You have all the chops to be a front-line arena billionaire rock star, why did you choose jazz?

LC: I chose jazz because of the harmony and subtlety. Yes, it would have been nice to be a rich rocker and all that, but this was not my destiny. My path had to do more with fine-tuning the jazz ethic, with composing meaningful works, and with developing new ways to improvise. Remember, when you like Schoenberg, Hindemith and Albert Ayler, it’s pretty hard to sell out playing oversimplified music. My connection with rock at that time was for the quality of the music, “Whiter Shade of Pale”, for example, and today I don’t hear too much good music coming from Pop/Rock. Actually, Rock, as a term, I believe, is obsolete.

AC: People say that jazz is one of the few purely American art forms. Why do you think this may or may not be true?

LC: Yes, well, it is widely accepted that jazz is America’s only true art form. Interestingly, none other than the great Duke Ellington said that he was playing/composing African Classical Music and jazz was something that one heard in a house of ill repute. The point is, whatever you call it, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” as Duke put it. I don’t care what you call it, it’s my music.

AC: What kind of music did you listen to while growing up that has informed your musical palate?

LC: Growing up I listened to everything that was out there. When I got into my teens I started hearing Chet Atkins and Chuck Berry, then I had a jazz guitar teacher who lent me his jazz guitar record collection, including Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow. That was a revelation, to say the least. Then I heard Wes, and it was all over. I got to meet him later when I was about twenty-one, great experience.

AC: You studied Journalism at The University of Washington. What do you think of music critics and the way they cover jazz?

LC: I chose journalism in college so I would have something to fall back on if I couldn’t make it as a musician. Fortunately, I did ok with my music. Regarding critics, the good ones will tell you when you aren’t playing your best, and I respect that. I don’t like close-minded critics, whose reviews often sound like they overheard a musician say something, then they just repeat that. Although I respect them for being there, we need people to write about jazz so it stays in the public eye.

AC: Tell us about your biography My Life in Music?

LC: My biography was written during a difficult transition time in my life, but it came out ok. I believe it was well-written. But I will get a colleague, a real writer, to help me with my next book. This will give a better perspective, I think.

AC: Do you think jazz music has been given the type exposure it deserves in this county, as other countries such as France consider the genre with an almost artistic reverence?

LC: Jazz music is not embraced in America in the same fervent manner as, say, France or Japan. But it is what it is, it has no bearing on how I play or what I’m writing. An artist’s work has a life of its own, I think that is a truism. We live in a creative world with different, creative parameters. Now, if you count New York, jazz is still a vibrant and beloved American art form. NYC was, is, and always will be the center of jazz for me.

AC: Once you became proficient with the guitar, how did The Beatles and the British invasion effect your musical direction?

LC: The British Invasion, including the Beatles, affected jazz musicians differently. The more conservative-minded players had no use for it, and I respect that. For me, because I was young, I wanted to know what was going on in all forms of music, and the Brits made a great contribution. The Beatles, to me, were a major force in the Twentieth Century, but so were Coltrane and Dizzy, etc. My initial idea for jazz-rock-fusion was based on an imaginary meeting between ‘Trane and George Harrison.

AC: Was there ever a point when you said, Ok I am going to do jazz and not pursue rock? Despite the business considerations? Any regrets?

LC: Musicians don’t think that way, at least, for me. All my decisions that had to do with branching out of the standard thinking, were creative ones. The music always came first. Sometimes I make a decision I regret, but, hey, you never know what it’s going to be like unless you try it. I thought the Eleventh House was a good move, that’s why we’re touring next year, we have new music. But remember, as I got older, my preferences organically evolved towards straight-ahead. That’s about maturation.

AC: Why did you switch from acoustic to electric? How did your fans respond?

LC: Acoustic versus electric. I initially switched to acoustic in the 70’s because the Eleventh House got too loud. I needed to quiet down and develop more subtlety. Now I go back and forth between both acoustic and electric. In my traveling band I play about five or six titles on electric, then I switch to acoustic for a couple of titles, and the public seems to enjoy the contrast. They are both good mediums, you just have to learn how to use them to your best advantage, in my opinion.

AC: Tell us about your band Foreplay?

LC: My Foreplay band was a good band, it really sprang from a “New York in the late sixties-early seventies” mentality and we had some very good gigs. Saxophonist Steve Marcus was, for me, the star of the band, one of the greatest players to ever play straight-ahead or fusion. Beyond category. He is sorely missed. Harry Wilkinson and Mervyn Bronson were one of the tightest drums-bass combos in history. The biggest mistake I made was letting Harry talk me into replacing Mervyn with Chris Hills, who was good, because the chemistry was no longer there. Live and learn, baby, live and learn. The album we did, Offering, was a good record I think.

AC: What about the temptations of the musician’s lifestyle and substance abuse?

LC: Well, the temptations of the music industry is a misnomer for me, because you have substance abuse problems all throughout society. The disease of addiction can hit the local grocery clerk just as badly as it can hit a guitar player. For me, the best thing that ever happened to me was getting clean and sober. I still go to meetings. Love it. I was able to overcome my substance abuse problem by getting professional help and I strongly recommend that for anyone who thinks they have a problem.

AC: Who are some of the artists who have inspired you along the way?

LC: The list of musicians who have inspired me over the years is nearly endless, just about everybody! Including people, you never heard of. I was always trying to learn. I’ll never forget Dave Pike telling me, around 1965-66, “go hear Grant Green.” I went and I heard Grant and I was blown away. I changed my playing because of that. Atilla Zoller encouraged me early on, also Herbie Mann, Chico Hamilton, Roy Haynes, Miroslav Vitous, the list is long, too long for me to go into it now except that I think Dizzy was the best ever. That’s just my personal thought.

AC: Who do you think you have inspired?

LC: If I have inspired any musicians during the course of my life it is because I passed on what was shown to me by the players I mentioned in the previous question. I have a couple of students, young, around twenty, who I think will become very successful. The new generation of players today are remarkable.

AC: What are some of your most memorable sessions?

LC: Two of the most memorable sessions I have done were Duster with the Gary Burton Quartet, and Barefoot Boy, my own session with Steve Marcus, Harry Wilkinson, Mervyn Bronson and Roy Haynes, I can’t recall who played percussion. Duster was the first straight-ahead jazz record where the players played both in and out. That was one hell of a group. Another session I enjoyed very much was “I Remember Bill”, Don Sebesky’s tribute to Bill Evans. Some of the stuff we played I didn’t even know. I just read the charts and did best I could. Also, all three sessions I did with Charles Mingus were amazing for me.

AC: Tell us about The Guitar Trio?

LC: The Guitar Trio with John and Paco was something else. Let the music speak for itself, there’s nothing that I might say to add to the value of that collaboration. John has always been a great friend and inspiration, original as all get-out, and musically very, very intelligent. And I can’t even think about Paco without breaking into tears, he was the greatest pure guitarist in history for me.

AC: Which do you consider some of your best compositions?

LC: I think the record and compositions I’m working on right now are my best, that’s the way this artist thinks. The best of the older stuff? I don’t know, that’s for you to decide. Once I do a project or a session I let it go, forget about it, and move on to the next thing. That’s one of the things I learned from Miles.

AC: Most magical gig you ever played?

LC: Most magical gig I’ve ever played? I don’t know, I think maybe when the Eleventh House equipment didn’t arrive for a gig in Paris, around ’74, and I had to pay solo acoustic impromptu, with no time to think about what I was going to play. That was pretty magical.

AC: Who are some of the artists you have always wanted to work with?

LC: Maria Callas. I played with just about everybody else. She’s my hero, maybe the best pure musician.

AC: I understand that your sons work in the music industry what do they do?

LC: My sons are both great guitarists and singers/composers. Julian, the younger is more of a jazz guy and his older brother Murali, is a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. I am a proud, proud father! We occasionally will do some gigs.

AC: Where is the genre going?

LC: Jazz is going to good places, the new players are really good. I hope they surpass me, that’s my deepest wish. Jazz is now worldwide and it is such a compelling art form that nothing can ever harm it. It is an evolving art form of the first degree!

AC: How has new media effected the way things are done musically?

LC: The internet is a big problem for sure, I try not to think about it. We must accept it, it’s reality. Sometimes it’s nice to send charts through an email when you are working with musicians in distant locations, very convenient. Everything seems to be a double-edged sword.

AC: What kinds of things are you working on now?

LC: Right now, I’m heading an Australian quartet at a club called Bird’s Basement in Melbourne, these cats are killin’! I am currently finishing my second opera, more of an oratorio, truth be told, Anna Karenina which will world premiere in May of next year in Kaluga, Russia. My third opera is Ulysses (Joyce) and the world premiere of that, if it comes through, will be June 16, 2018. This one is a hard one, because Joyce was quite complex, but he was a fair-to-middlin’ jazz guitarist, I’m told.

I continue to study, bebop, Hindemith, Ravel, Stravinsky and great twentieth century composers like Debussy. Also, love Brazilian and Indian music. I love all music that’s good. I don’t care for things like “The Missouri Waltz”, if you know what I mean.

AC: Do you have a bucket list?

LC: I don’t really need a bucket list. I have experienced a full life because of jazz music. I want for nothing. I got to play with the great ones, like Mingus and Dizzy, and I continue to be fortunate enough to continue to encounter incredible musicians, as well as great people. I have been given so much I really can’t comprehend it. My way of saying thank you is to work hard on my art and music, touching people’s hearts with my music is my goal, just as my heart has been touched during the course of my life.

Edited By Mariam Salarian

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