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Larry Coryell: Free Spirit and Pioneer

Steve Khan By

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Not too long ago, I learned that sadly, one of my great inspirations, guitarist Larry Coryell had passed away here in New York on February 19th, 2017. Somewhere around 1968, I remember being in college at U.C.L.A. and going several times to see Larry play as part of the visionary Gary Burton Quartet. Usually they played at Shelly's Manne-Hole. Perhaps the second time that I saw the group, they were recording their second album, Lofty Fake Anagram in the afternoons while playing the live gig at night. I have chosen to share a photo from that time period, because I would like to always remember Larry in this way. I remember Larry telling me that that big, beautiful, blonde Gibson Super 400 was actually not his guitar, and that it belonged to Chris Hills, his band mate from the trailblazing Free Spirits. Larry was only borrowing it!

What first struck me, in the context of the Duster album by the Gary Burton Quartet, was that, unlike anyone in the past, Larry was showing us all that the full spectrum of the guitar and its possibilities was in play. One could play anything, and from any style, and, in a jazz context, it was now all O.K.! When I saw the group play live in Los Angeles, there seemed to be a new energy that was infusing the jazz of that time period. Alongside the Charles Lloyd Quartet, and, of course, with Miles Davis having gone "electric"—the fusion era was now well on its way. It was an incredible time for the possible. And Larry Coryell was right on the forefront of it. He was, without question, the father of the "Fusion" movement where the guitar is concerned. What he did then opened the door for all of us who were to follow, and each of us, in his own way, did follow.

In truth, I don't know if Larry ever sounded as good as he did on the first Gary Burton Quartet album, Duster. What an incredible recording that was. Larry's appearance on Chico Hamilton's The Dealer album was also huge. Sometimes, one can have everything about their future right there, right in one's own hands, but, for one reason or another, the moment escapes, and then, those whom one had influenced arrive, and just as suddenly, they pass us right by! Larry's vision for his own recordings was never focused in the best possible way—they were all over the place—and perhaps because of that, John McLaughlin, when he appeared, he just passed him right by, followed a few years later by Bill Connors and Allan Holdsworth, and the sound of the guitar in fusion was changed forever. The focus and vision of an artist can be everything when seizing their moment!

Our duo, our duets came about because of business considerations from his managers at that time. There were many gigs that did not pay enough for The 11th House, and his managers hated turning down the income—so they asked me if I would be willing to put together a guitar duet setting with and for Larry. I wasn't sure that I could do it, or that we could do it, given those times in both of our lives—and I'm mostly speaking of personal issues. But, Larry and I spoke, by then having been friends for a long, long time, and I decided to just bring in the music that I had always felt closest to. You must remember that this was back in 1975. There really were no other acoustic guitar duos at that moment. Everything was very electric! We had a pretty expansive book of tunes, but at that time, no one was really "looking back" to the mid-'60s, and playing tunes like Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and "Juju" or Bobby Hutcherson's gorgeous ballad, "Bouquet." And, of course, to interpret Chick Corea's "Spain" seemed like a crazy thing for a guitar duo to be attempting, but, ever fearless, we did it.

It is ironic to me that, of all things, on my new CD, Backlog, by pure coincidence, I am playing three tunes from Bobby Hutcherson albums: "Head Start" and "Rojo" from Happenings—the same album that brought us "Bouquet." And finally, Andrew Hill's "Catta" from Hutcherson's Dialogue album. Life can be so strange sometimes!

Larry and I were perhaps the first contemporary acoustic jazz guitar duo, and we would log countless miles touring the U.S. and Europe together, but, for a variety of personal reasons, after a couple of years, I left the duo, wanting to devote myself full-time to the Brecker Brothers Band. It was, of course, the best possible decision for me. Though it was recorded a few years before its actual release, our live recording, Two for the Road became the document of what we had been working on together. It is often hard for me to imagine just how much that recording has come to mean for so many people. No matter what, I am very appreciative of that fact alone.

Sadly, in the past few decades, Larry and I hardly saw one another, but, it wasn't that long ago that we exchanged a few wonderful phone calls and e-mails, and realized just how much warmth and mutual respect still existed. I will always remain grateful to Larry for having come along with a particular vision of just what the guitar could do and be in a jazz context, and never lose its connections to rock, blues, country, folk, classical, and other eclectic influences. It was the moment for jazz to embrace anything and everything.

Rest in peace Larry, you were a true pioneer, and younger players and fans should never forget that!
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