Larry Coryell: A Family Affair

AAJ Staff By

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This interview was originally published at All About Jazz in March 2000.

All About Jazz: The Coryells seems to be your most personal album yet.

Larry Coryell: The idea of recording with my sons seemed like a good idea at the time. It was a great joy to record with my sons. The sessions went beautifully.

AAJ: Had you recorded with them before?

LC: I had them on a Shanachie release in the early nineties. It was called Twelve Frets To One Octave. I put both of the boys on a couple of tracks. They were like teenagers at that time, but I wanted to help them get their feet wet in a recording situation. I think they both were surprised to learn how difficult the recording situation is.

AAJ: What surprised them?

LC: You can't screw up. It's really a matter of preparation.

AAJ: How did you get yourself and your sons together when all three of you live in separate parts of the country?

LC: They each have their separate careers. One books things as far ahead of time as one can in order to eke out a living, especially when you're a young struggling player as both of those guys are. It's always difficult to sort out our schedules.

AAJ: You recorded it at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in New York.

LC: That's what Chesky does. The label has its own philosophy about sound.

AAJ: Was everyone pleased with the results of The Coryells?

LC: Yes. Finally at the end, everybody was satisfied. We had to listen carefully to everything that was recorded and then choose. There were a lot of choices to make. The decision-making process took a while because it was done by consensus. Because we had a relatively large amount of new music to play, the new compositions were being learned and performed at almost the same time. That's where the choices became very important. Nick Prout, the sound editor, has a very good musical sense, and he worked with all of us regarding passages of the music.

AAJ: What do you mean by "choices"?

LC: We had more than one take of Al Green's Love And Happiness tune. With his own sense of musicality, Nick was able to bring in a stronger guitar solo in the middle of the performance and yet retain the best vocal performance. Also, there were subtle things, like the way the ensemble was functioning in a section of the performance. Yet, Nick was able to put that section together with another take to make it sound like a more optimal solution.

AAJ: Did Nick do that with Goodbye Porkpie Hat too?

LC: No, I think that was done in one take. Goodbye Porkpie Hat has been getting most of the airplay from the album so far. The album has only been out for "a minute," but that tune is the one the radio people have gravitated toward.

AAJ: Murali does a good job singing that number. Did you encourage him to sing?

LC: I did through the DNA influence. I sang early in my life, and I'm actually thinking about singing again. I haven't sung anything for quite a few years. Murali's strength is with the guitar, but his singing is a more dominant and unique aspect of his talent. Julian also sings, but Julian is more of a virtuoso on the guitar in terms of playing over changes. Murali can play over modes; he basically does blues and R&B with his band. They don't do a lot of changes in that context.

AAJ: Where do your sons live?

LC: Murali lives in Kingston, New York, and Julian lives in Venice, California.

AAJ: So that was quite an event for them to get together with you for the recording.

LC: Well, I had brought Julian out from California to play with the reunion of The Eleventh House at the Blue Note the week before we did the Chesky recording. I wanted to get him up and playing first. Playing two or three sets a night is very good for a young player before he goes into the studio.

AAJ: Alphonse Mouzon from The Eleventh House is on The Coryells too.

LC: He was with us at the Blue Note, and so I figured, why not put him on the record? Alphonse and I had just completed two years' worth of gigs that ended in December.

AAJ: Were any other original members in The Eleventh House reunion?

LC: None from the original group, except that last October we brought in the second bassist in the group, John Lee.

AAJ: Who does Julian work with in California?

LC: He's working as a soloist and a leader on his own project. He has been playing a lot of pop music—trying to improve it with his own particular, quirky and very thoughtful type of pop music that he writes. I like to use him as a back-up in my jazz group whenever possible.

AAJ: Well, you helped to bring a new language to both pop and jazz music.

LC: Like father, like son.

AAJ: And Murali is affected by your interest in blues.

LC: Murali's playing is derived from the time when Jimi Hendrix came into the dressing room at the Fillmore East and said a prayer over Murali's crib. Well, he said something; maybe it wasn't a prayer.

AAJ: Did Murali study music in school, or did you teach him yourself?

LC: Not really. Julian showed a natural aptitude to play the guitar early in his life, and he took more formal lessons than Murali. Murali developed his interest later. I thought that Murali had his own kind of talent and that it would evolve a little bit later than Julian's. Both Murali and Julian studied piano, of course, as they were growing up in Connecticut.

Julian was more heavily influenced by the Beatles' type of music as he was growing up. But because I was doing a lot of straight-ahead music in the eighties when he was like a pre-teen, he asked me to teach him the chord changes to a Clifford Brown song.

AAJ: Did you stay in the same place while Julian and Murali were growing up?

LC: We tried to, but there was also a lot of moving around. It's not much different from anybody else of my generation. You try to stay in one place, but you can't always do that.

AAJ: Did you stay in Connecticut to be close to New York?

LC: We basically stayed there to be close to New York, yes.

AAJ: Did your sons study in New York then?

LC: No, they took piano lessons in Westport. Their teacher was Gay Mehegan, the first wife of John Mehegan. He was quite famous inside the inner circle of jazz initially for his playing, of course. He recorded with guitarist Chuck Wayne. John's piano books also were considered de rigueur by people like Herbie Hancock and others. You see John Mehegan's piano books probably in almost every jazz educational institution in the United States, and probably in Europe and Asia as well.

AAJ: Was it hard to raise a family as jazz musician?

LC: It wasn't any more difficult that it would be for anybody else to make their way through life at that particular time in that particular environment. I'm just happy that we survived it all.

AAJ: It seems that you did more than survive. You have two good sons and a daughter too.

LC: I have a beautiful young girl named Allegra from my second wife, Molly.

AAJ: How old is Allegra?

LC: She's twelve. She's mainly into dancing. She takes dancing lessons every day, practically, here in Florida.

AAJ: It seems that the totality of your influence has split between your sons.

LC: Right. Sometimes the three of us go with straight-ahead music, sometimes we go with Indian music, sometimes we go with flamenco. There is less conscious combining of influences now.

AAJ: Yes, but The Coryells shows your Spanish influence on the first track before you get into blues and R&B to show the group's versatility.

AAJ: I had read in the liner notes to Shining Hour that you're a Buddhist.

LC: I practice Buddhism. I was converted by Wayne Shorter, Buster Williams and Herbie Hancock in the late seventies or early eighties. I joined the organization that practices this particular type of Buddhism in 1984. So I've been practicing for sixteen years.

AAJ: How did you find out about Buddhism? Were you proselytized?

LC: I don't like the word "proselytize." Wayne, Buster and Herbie looked at me and thought it might help me to adopt this particular philosophy and practice this particular form of Buddhism. It involves primarily chanting. There are a lot of Americans who are Buddhists. I converted a couple of people this year. It's slow. You have to be patient. It's best done on a one-on-one basis.

AAJ: The liner notes to Shining Hour mention that you gave up alcohol and drugs around that same time.

LC: Because of chanting, I was able to see the truth about my life. I came to see that giving up all forms of mood-altering chemicals was the only way for me to operate if I wanted to stay alive and if I ever wanted to evolve as a musician. You live in Ohio. One of the greatest self-help philosophies started in Akron, Ohio.

AAJ: Which one is that?

LC: You might have heard of it. It's called Alcoholics Anonymous. I don't want to say anything about AA, though, because we're not supposed to talk about it.

AAJ: Sheila Jordan had said the same thing.

LC: Sheila's a great gal. Aside from being a great singer, she's a brilliant documenter of the history of post-swing into bebop jazz. She married Bird's pianist. What she brings to the table also is her having been there in the center when the history of jazz was taking place at various times. It's very therapeutic for someone like her to tell the truth.

AAJ: That's one thing I like about interviewing jazz artists: They usually tell the truth.

LC: That's what the music's all about anyway. I mean, Clive Davis came on television with all of this Grammy hoopla and talked about "radio friendly" records. It means the music was simplified so that large masses of people can digest it. It also means promoting records that have the latest trend, like two rappers, for instance. There's basically nothing wrong with that. But if you are, in your heart of hearts, a jazz musician, you can't play that kind of music often.

AAJ: Bob Brookmeyer had said similar things.

LC: Bob Brookmeyer is a genius. He has nothing to lose. Bob's seventy. He was around way before Wynton Marsalis came along. He could separate what Wynton really does—which is, to play the trumpet rather well—from all of the karma that made him a symbol for jazz in his lifetime. At his age, Bob wants to communicate essential and true things about his life, which is basically a jazz life. If you really must know, when I was in the hospital, I called Bob Brookmeyer. They told me in the hospital to find someone I knew who was in recovery. I somehow found his number. I said, "Hi. I'm in a rehab. I'm trying to get sober." He said, "Well, Larry, I'm glad you're there." I cried for ten minutes. I was coming off seventeen years of drugs and alcohol. The fact that he cared was important. He was more than just a recovering person to me. He was Bob Brookmeyer.

AAJ: He has strong opinions about the media.

LC: I get the impression that Bob thinks of the rise and transformation of the media, what with all of the technology and the amazing things you can do, as a potentially positive force gone bad. Journalists unseen put down their thoughts and publish them. We'll never know if a journalist still has the same opinion years later. If I were a reviewer, I may look at my review years later and think, "Well, maybe I don't really feel that way anymore. Maybe I did like that tune."

AAJ: Wouldn't that apply to music too? You may listen to something you did twenty years ago and change your mind about it.

LC: Yes, but music is music. It speaks for itself. It's neither bad nor good intrinsically. It just is. But why should some stranger, who doesn't know anything about the music, put his views out there so that millions of people can read disrespectful and sometimes untrue comments? I think that's Bob's point, and that's what hurts. That's what really breaks artists' hearts. Journalists do that to get readership.

Artists have to tell the truth, though. What do you think we do when we pick up our instruments? I don't even see the point in doing interviews. If you want to know anything about the music, then you should just listen to the music.

AAJ: I disagree. Jazz is a very personal music that comes from the musician's experiences and being. So people want to know about the person who creates the music. Also, too many outstanding jazz artists, like Buddy Bolden or Clifford Brown, leave an influential musical legacy but aren't documented until it's after the fact.

LC: Again, anything I need to know about somebody's music is in the music itself. I really don't care what kind of a background they have or how much they suffered or didn't suffer. You know what I mean? That's why, at least in jazz, there's absolutely no discrimination. In the purest sense, everyone is equal. If you can play, that's it. If you can't play, go home and practice until you can. One of the greatest players of the twentieth century, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, taught me that lesson over and over again.

AAJ: When did you meet him?

LC: He was very high profile in New York when I moved there in the middle sixties. I just happened to be around him a lot. One of the guys I was hanging with at the time was a drummer that Roland liked: Bob Moses. So I got a lot of Roland's philosophy either directly or second hand through Bob. I'll never forget that one Monday night at the Village Vanguard, an announcer said, "Roland Kirk just won the "multi-instrumentalist's award" from Down Beat." Roland went right up to the mike, stopped the guy, and said, "I should have won it on tenor too!" [Long laugh] His point was, "Don't label me as a freak." The press kind of freaked him about playing three horns at one time. Roland was front and center on the scene in the fifties and sixties, but he was just trying to make music. He also was a black man during a period when his people were going through a big upheaval in perception and evolution. The change really started during World War Two when all of the established musicians went into the service. They were all playing swing music. Then all of the kids who were too young to go in the Army stayed in the States and developed bebop. Barney Kessel told me that. I figure that if Barney Kessel said that, it should be pretty accurate.

AAJ: To get a sense of your background, your interest in music started in Galveston when you were four.

LC: Not in jazz. I became interested in playing the piano when I was four. I've led a charmed life. I've been able to do what I wanted to do my whole life.

AAJ: Was that because of your parents' support?

LC: It's just because of my karma. Who knows the reason? I've just been very lucky to have survived a lot of obstacles. I've always been able to play, and I have two sons who can play. Now I have a daughter who's a very talented dancer. It's all a real blessing. Life's been very good to me.

AAJ: Getting back into your background, you started on guitar around twelve.

LC: This information really doesn't matter, you know. My hands were too small to play a guitar until a certain age. I think it was the same age when you get a driver's license. I was totally into music. Music was all that I thought about. That was all that I wanted to do. When my hands got big enough, I switched over to the guitar after diddling around on the ukelele, which is a very simple instrument. From that point on, there was a series of revelations, and each previously not heard player would hit my ears. I wanted to learn how to improvise without being conscious of it. I didn't say, "I want to learn how to improvise." I really was attracted to what Wes Montgomery was doing around then—in 1960, I think. After—quote "being influenced by"unquote maybe fifteen or twenty guitar players, it went down to one or two. "One" was Wes Montgomery. I couldn't tell you who "two" is off hand. When I asked Carmen McRae who her influences were, she said, "Only Billie Holiday." You can't be too much of a chameleon. Versatile? Yes.

AAJ: You had said earlier that you spent a lot of time developing your own identity. When did you get to the point where you stopped imitating Wes Montgomery note for note and started to develop your own style?

LC: Wes is still an influence in terms of concept and philosophy and taste. "Taste" is a big thing.

AAJ: Was there a single element of his style that attracted you?

LC: Holistically speaking, I was interested in the whole package: the musician, the artist.

AAJ: You got to meet him when you were a student in Seattle.

LC: I met him in various places, yes. I first met him there in Seattle, and I talked to him briefly then. We had a long conversation one day there.

AAJ: Did your father get another job in Washington?

LC: Yes. We moved from Texas to the state of Washington in 1950 because of a family change. We were just a normal American family.

AAJ: You didn't live near Seattle?

LC: We lived 250 miles away near a mountain range. The name of the town was Richland, near Walla Walla.

AAJ: Why did you pursue journalism when you went to the university?

LC: What if I couldn't have made it as a musician? I needed to have some kind of a back-up. I didn't know if I was any good. I didn't know if I had any talent.

AAJ: Why did you decide to move to New York from Washington?

LC: I had reached a point—I think I was twenty-one or twenty-two—where I had the impression that if I moved to New York or L.A., I would learn a lot more about jazz. I went to L.A. for a "minute" because I was on the West Coast. I just couldn't connect because I couldn't understand the way L.A. was laid out. I also was influenced by the musicians who traveled through Seattle. The ones from the East Coast had more of an attraction to me musically. So I had the temerity to just one day pack up and move to New York. When you're young, you can do crazy things like that.

AAJ: And you worked with Chico Hamilton there.

LC: I had met Chico in Seattle when he came through. When I was in New York, I was friends with Chico's guitarist at the time, the Hungarian great, Gabor Szabo. Gabor wanted to leave Chico to start his own group. So he groomed me to take his place in Chico's group.

AAJ: And Gary Burton first heard you in a jam session.

LC: I was in this jazz-rock group called The Free Spirits, and Gary came to hear us. He was interested in all kinds of music. He was with Stan Getz at the time. He heard me in The Free Spririts, and he could tell that I'm a jazz player at heart. He was looking for an interesting guitarist to be in his new group. I had seen him in Seattle with Stan Getz, and so I knew what he could do. Gary had been on a very important record in my development called Jazz Winds From The New Direction with the guitarist Hank Garland. So I knew he could play, and I could see that he had it together in terms of taking care of business. And I wanted to get out of the situation I was in because I wasn't going anywhere. You know, I wanted a regular jazz gig.

AAJ: Why did you leave Burton for Fourplay?

LC: It just came time to go off on my own, you know. I'm a very strong personality. I kind of couldn't help it.

AAJ: You followed up Fourplay with The Eleventh House.

LC: It was a matter of "Let's do something that's different" and "Let's do something that makes a difference." In order to do that, I got jazz-based musicians my age who had a very open mind about creating a new kind of music that not only would be interesting and fun to construct and produce and play, but also that might reach a lot of people.

AAJ: And the new music was fusion?

LC: We didn't call it "fusion." I don't know what it was called. It doesn't matter.

AAJ: A lot of people say you're one of the first or best fusion guitarists.

LC: I think John McLaughlin did a much better job. I think he's great.

AAJ: Have you performed together?

LC: Yes, on those rare occasions when the room was big enough for both of our egos.

AAJ: You had abandoned electric guitar before you recorded the duo guitar albums.

LC: That was a brief period in the late seventies when I was tired of playing loud music.

AAJ: I know you have to get ready for your trip to China. Do you have any final thoughts?

LC: It's very rewarding to do a project with your own family members. It's a very special situation. I really hope to develop this concept. I hope this family musical effort resounds with the public. I think it can only get better. It was ragged and rough trying to get it all together, what with everybody's conflicting schedules. But any modicum of success will help us develop the music that's already on the CD, as well as new stuff. When you're on stage playing every night, good things happen. We have a couple of gigs coming up, and I made sure that both boys are available for the gigs. We should have six nights in a row at a club in L.A. so that we can open up the format and see what evolves.

Eventually, I may get a gig in Europe. I prefer playing there because most Americans aren't into the arts. I like going to Europe because I get a much better perspective about the totality of humanism. It's true in China and Japan too. Japan rose from the ashes at the end of World War Two to become a very prosperous society. The Buddhist movement has helped sick people to become well and poor people to become more affluent. To me, Buddhism is the way to the only kind of peace that has lasting value. That's because it's based on a fundamental change in each individual.

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