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Larry Coryell: Less Rock, More Jazz

Todd S. Jenkins By

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We were just trying to be different. We didn't just want to emulate our jazz heroes; we felt that was not correct... In order to work I had to come forward with some fresh ideas, so I just gravitated naturally to mixing styles.
This interview was originally published at All About Jazz in June 2001.

A true jazz pioneer, guitarist Larry Coryell was one of the earliest musicians to experiment with the fusion of jazz and rock styles. Originally from Galveston, Texas, Coryell moved to New York in 1965, at a time when the city's music scene was infused with a richly creative spirit. Early on he performed with Chico Hamilton, Gary Burton, and the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra headed by Mike Mantler and Carla Bley. He also helped organize one of the first jazz-rock groups, the Free Spirits, with saxophonist Jim Pepper, drummer Bob Moses, pianist Mike Nock and bassist Chris Hills. The band's album Out of Sight and Sound is now a rare, treasured collectible for passionate jazz-rock fans.

In 1967 Coryell and saxophonist Steve "The Count" Marcus broke further ground in fusion with Count's Rock Band. The duo continued their collaboration in the group Foreplay and later in Coryell's legendary band The Eleventh House. Coryell's powerful, acidic tone and the band members' virtuosity quickly made The Eleventh House one of the most influential jazz-rock projects. Coryell subsequently worked with the likes of John McLaughlin, Charles Mingus, Alphonse Mouzon, Philip Catherine, John Scofield and Miroslav Vitous, and recorded his own now-classic albums like Spaces and Lady Coryell. Along the way he endured occasional bouts of alcoholism, which he eventually overcame through Buddhist practices.

In 2000 Coryell rejoined forces with Steve Marcus to record Reunion under the name Count's Jam Band. The Tone Center album also includes fine contributions from electric bassist Kai Eckhardt (of John McLaughlin's band) and drummer Steve Smith (formerly of Journey). Coryell has also recently released Inner Urge, his third mainstream jazz album for the HighNote label. All About Jazz fusion editor Todd S. Jenkins recently spoke with Coryell about his art, his role in fusion's development, and his renewed collaboration with Marcus.

All About Jazz: I spent the last couple of days spinning the new Count's Jam Band disc. It sounds fabulous! So what brought this reunion on?

Larry Coryell: You know, I honestly can't remember. I think it was a suggestion from Steve Smith. It certainly wasn't a bad idea, regardless of who proposed it, because I haven't really finished doing the kind of saxophone stuff that I started with Steve way back in the beginning. I felt that in previous incarnations, we never really did quite enough of the softer, more harmonic side of our collaboration, even though we did have one ballad-type thing called "The Meditation of November 8th" on a Foreplay album called Offering. We also thought that songs like "Scotland" and "Foreplay" did not sound dated.

AAJ: I would agree with that. Opening with "Scotland" on the new disc was a good idea. It has all that angularity and power that really marked what the jazz-rock fusion was about back in the day. But as you say, it doesn't sound dated at all.

LC: Yeah. Well, we were afraid it was, but when we did it, I think a lot of the reason it didn't sound dated was because of the rhythm section.

AAJ: Right. Their presence really seems to add a different focus to the session.

LC: You can't really over-praise that rhythm section. These guys really played their roles in the best way.

AAJ: Kai Eckhardt is such a unique bassist. I especially like things like the track "Reunion," where his bass sort of serves as an additional percussion instrument.

LC: He wrote that in a little cabin just off the studio while we were diddling around doing other things. He put it together very quickly. But it doesn't sound like it. It's quite an arrangement.

AAJ: None of this album sounds like it was just slapped together. It is interesting to hear the two different generations of musicians interacting as well as you do together. You and Steve Marcus had both worked separately with Steve Smith. Had you ever worked with Kai before?

LC: Yes, I hired him to play some gig up in Sonoma. I knew about him, I knew he could play. I'd like to take them on the road with me if they weren't always booked.

AAJ: Right. Steve Smith has kind of become the house drummer for Tone Center.

LC: And not only that, he's a regular drummer-celebrity-gadfly. He's always doing something. It's hard to nail them down for a tour.

AAJ: I imagine. You also mentioned about "Foreplay" not sounding dated. I think that tune in particular shows off your affinity for the unusual chord voicings that have always identified your music, and have had an influence on Pat Metheny and many other people. But on this new recording it sounds like a completely fresh tune.

LC: Thank you. And that's exactly what we were trying to do. You know, one doesn't always accomplish what one sets out to do, but in that case I have to agree with you.

AAJ: I think the variety of music you've personally done over the past thirty-odd years benefits this album greatly. You can get into that chordal approach on something like "Rhapsody" that gives it a much jazzier feel than the flat-out electric fusion that's heard on some of the other tunes. I think that it rounds everything out well. A lot of your jazz-rock fans aren't even aware that you recorded with Mingus and Stephane Grappelli and Sonny Rollins at various points in time.

LC: You know, in a funny way, especially if you listen to "Rhapsody in Blues," people who know me from Rollins and Mingus and Stephane Grappelli can find a connection there. And Steve Marcus takes some great choruses on that. I think it's the longest track on the CD and yet, at least when I listen to it... I've listened to it maybe three times... it wasn't tedious, it wasn't overly long, and I actually enjoyed one piece where the band stretched out as if they were onstage.

AAJ: I think one particular hallmark of this album is that it could well have gotten bogged down into a bunch of repetition, but everything continues to flow and sound fresh throughout the entire disc.

LC: Well, you have to give credit to Steve Smith. You wouldn't know it unless you were told by an insider, but he was constantly monitoring each piece on a vertical level, to make sure that each piece was consistent with itself, but also on a horizontal level to make sure that each piece related to the other ones correctly. I could see him always being conscious about that.

AAJ: I spoke with Mike Varney, the label head, a few weeks ago and he mentioned exactly that. Steve Smith is so detail-oriented and so concentrated on making sure that everything flows evenly and comes into a nice, coherent whole.

LC: Well, you know, he's a drummer. They spend most of their lives on the drum set listening to the other musicians in order to respond to the music correctly.
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