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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.

AAJ: Tell me about "Blues for Yoshiro Hattori."

LC: Yoshihiro Hattori was a Japanese exchange student who had moved or been sent to Louisiana a few years ago. He was accidentally murdered by some resident down there when he went to the wrong house wearing a Halloween costume.

I was made aware of it by a friend of mine who happens to be Japanese, who had read a story about that incident by New York journalist Pete Hamilton. My friend and I both practice a kind of Buddhism in which the primary practice is chanting a mantra called "Nam Yomo Renge Kyo," and we chanted about it. In that article Pete Hamilton said that somebody should write a slow blues for Yoshihiro Hattori, so I took a slow blues, like a 12/8, almost down-home B.B. King slow blues, and I decided to put some other things in there. A lot more involved harmony and lead lines to express the complexity of the emotions that I felt about the whole thing.

AAJ: The beat of that particular tune is definitely a sort of waltz feel. It's got that nice, complex flow to the head. Another one of the more unusual tracks is "Tomorrow Never Knows." There's a lot of drones, buzzsaws and dissonance going on in there. It's quite different from anything else on the album. I think that one is especially fascinating.

LC: We had some huge discussions about that, they went on for days about whether or not to do that. During the course of making a record like this there's always heated discussions about material. I think it came down to a situation where it was late in the week (we did the whole thing in a week), and Steve Smith said to Marcus, "Okay, we'll record that in one take in the morning and get it out of the way," something like that. But the whole time Steve Marcus was under the impression that we were going to do another take. His playing on that track was basically with the assumption that we would do another take, so he was playing with unbelievable relaxation and abandon. And that solo on the new version is totally different from the original solo on the original "Tomorrow Never Knows" from 1960-something. It's just one of the unexpected benefits of improvised music and the chemistry of musicians with that kind of imagination and experience.

AAJ: I think it's a shame that Steve Marcus still today isn't very well-known. His soprano playing throughout this album is so consistently tasteful on a horn that's been subjected to a whole lot of crap over the past twenty or thirty years.

LC: I couldn't agree more with that statement. I don't want to mention any names, but there are some soprano players who have such a terrible sound, while their ideas are good, it just wears on the mind.

AAJ: Some of them don't even know how to keep the thing in tune. It is one of the most difficult horns to keep in tune consistently.

LC: It must be. Sometimes it sounds like an agony pipe. And Marcus' sound on the soprano has actually changed since our early days. There's less high end to his sound, and I like the more mellow, almost Stan Getz-like tone he gets, especially in the more tender sections of the music where he's not blowing very hard.

AAJ: By not going up into the rafters all the time he makes it sound like it's almost a part of him, it's such a natural flow.

LC: And that's what you want.

AAJ: I'd like to think that this album open some doors for him, because he's one of the best soprano players we've heard in ages but he doesn't seem to get that many recording opportunities.

LC: Actually, he works all the time. I spoke to him last night. He's working like crazy, he's going to Europe. But the quality of his work definitely deserves more attention. And if the right things happen as a result of this release, then what you just said you'd like to see vis-à-vis Steve's estimation in the musical community, I think it will happen.

AAJ: Is there any chance that the two of you would consider going on tour with a different rhythm section?

LC: There's always that chance. In jazz today, there's always the possibility of any combination taking place. And that's definitely something that could take place. But ideally, the best thing to do would be to play with this quartet. Everybody knows the music. Learning the music was very difficult in a lot of situations. Actually, I also liked the pianist.

AAJ: Right. Jeff Chimenti has done some pretty strange gigs: Bob Weir's Ratdog, and the bizarro rock he does with Les Claypool's Flying Frog Brigade. Wild jam-rock stuff. To see him on a release like this was a refreshing surprise. I didn't expect what I heard.

LC: I don't know his other work. I just know him as a bebop guy who plays his tail off. I'd like to hear it eventually. Versatility, especially for young guys coming up, is something you need to have.

AAJ: He certainly has that. I think that Jeff rounds out the four tracks he's on just beautifully. He doesn't sound like a fifth wheel, so to speak.

LC: Not at all. I mean, he really got into it, even when he was playing supporting parts. His solo on "Rhapsody in Blues," there's one moment where he and Steve really get into it in the way that I really like to see interplay happen. There's not only interplay on here between the guitar and saxophone, even though we're the front line, there's interplay with everybody. It's a basic thing that I've always been taught about how to listen when you play and play when you listen.

AAJ: This album, especially, seems to exemplify that. The "Ballad for Guitar and Soprano" is some of the most beautifully lyrical work you've done in years. The sense of interplay between you two there, after almost three decades apart, is incredible. You've both got big ears and you react so intuitively.

LC: Can I tell you what's up with that? I gave that a little thought. We're both approximately the same age, our training is in jazz, we both were very aware of the pop and rock music that was going on in the late 60s and the fact that it had some value to it. Because we both had a lot of youthful energy and a lot of imagination, we found it easy to play as a front line. We could kind of anticipate each other's phrasing. A lot of the vocabulary he had, if I didn't exactly have it in my lexicon, I had something that either related to it or complemented it. In other words, we liked to come out of the jazz tradition, the vocabulary and foundation of what's known for better or worse as jazz, and improvisation.

A lot of this stuff, because we both admired Coltrane, we were doing some of the newer, current ideas that were coming out of the Coltrane-type school in the late 60s. Taking small groups of notes and extrapolating and repeating them, we both had a tendency to do that before we even knew each other. So when we came together as a front line, there were so many important things in common from a mechanical standpoint as well as a conceptual standpoint, that all you had to add was the fact that we're two kindred spirits. That's why that rapport is there, no matter how big the gap of time between playing events. It's always there. It's like Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. They could be apart for ten years, come back and be right there again.

AAJ: It's like they never left.

LC: Or Gary Burton and Chick Corea, or Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody. Or Jim Hall and Bill Evans. Those kinds of things in jazz, in addition to being attracted to the great virtuosity that individuals in jazz had, those kinds of teamwork things I find very attractive. It's what makes the music interesting. Almost a spiritual-scientific type thing.

AAJ: Obviously, a lot of people think that the fusion movement began with Miles, but you were doing jazz-rock-oriented things for years before Miles got around to Bitches Brew. How long after you got to New York was it before you hooked up with the Free Spirits?

LC: I'd say about a year.

AAJ: That's a group that hardly anyone remembers now, or has even heard of. In fact, I'd honestly forgotten about the Free Spirits until I watched a documentary on Jim Pepper. Bob Moses was talking about that whole experience.

LC: Bob is very eloquent, and I'm sure he remembers a lot more than I do. We were just trying to be different. We didn't just want to emulate our jazz heroes; we felt that was not correct. In my case, I was so young and so untrained I really needed to learn more about jazz when I got to New York. But in order to work I had to come forward with some fresh ideas, so I just gravitated naturally to mixing styles.

AAJ: At what point did you hook up with Marcus?

LC: Also about a year after I got to New York, maybe the summer of '66.

AAJ: And it was about that time that you got involved with the Jazz Composers Orchestra?

LC: That would have been a year later, I think. I'm not too good on my history. But I'll tell you, that was a very interesting time in New York. It was exciting. There was a lot of emphasis on the experimental side. A lot of stuff wasn't that great to listen to, but it was sure fun to play.

AAJ: They were breaking new ground, and sometimes that's more important for the time being.

LC: Some of the stuff that was done on ESP Records, I hear some of it today and it's unbelievably good.

AAJ: Right. Their first release was by the Albert Ayler Trio (Spiritual Unity).

LC: That's exactly the artist I was thinking about.

AAJ: A lot of that experimental feel from the 60s is active again in New York, especially around the Tonic and Knitting Factory scenes.

LC: Well, I don't live in New York anymore but I'm glad to hear that. It was essential to me to spend a lot of years in New York to really get a foundation in the music. I don't feel like I need to live there anymore.

AAJ: You've been there, done that, and moved on?

LC: Thirty-three years. But I've also learned a lot from going to Europe.

AAJ: It seems a lot of the fusion musicians these days have more of an audience in Japan than in America.

LC: Not only Japan, but in the Middle East and certain parts of Europe, fusion is huge.

AAJ: What do you think keeps it so alive over there and so bloody dead here in America where it was born?

LC: I don't know, but I do know that the fans of fusion that I've seen in Europe really are attracted to the good fusion virtuosos. They like Scott Henderson, guys who can play. Over here, jazz guitar is just pretty much your straight arch-top, dark style. I don't know why. I'm just glad to see guys like Scott Henderson, really good players who like to play electric styles. I'm glad there's an audience and some opportunities to work, even if it's not in their own country.

AAJ: How has your approach to this music changed since, say, the Eleventh House?

LC: Oh, it's a lot less loud. A lot less rock-and-roll-ish, more jazz ideas but still a mixing of styles.

AAJ: Anything else you'd like to say about this particular reunion?

LC: Well, it really needed to be done. Years ago Steve and I both knew a really nice fellow, a common friend from Denmark. We were happy when we were able to make the reunion, to validate the effort that this common friend made on our behalf to help us develop as people back in the turbulent time of the late 60s.

AAJ: You mentioned earlier about the practice of taking a motif and extrapolating it, doing some variations. That's very much in the bag of Joe Henderson, what he's been doing all these years. Which leads us to your new HighNote album, Inner Urge. (Henderson composed the title track.)

LC: I actually like that record. I don't always like the records I make, but I really like that record. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we had a really good group, and that we were careful in the material that we chose. Most everything was one take, and everyone played very well. I was lucky I got a good sound out of the guitar; or rather, Rudy Van Gelder got a good sound out of the guitar.

The music speaks for itself. We had a couple of problems with the first track because it was a difficult line and it was the first tune of the day. I did have to go back in and fix the melody, which is a real bear. But the spontaneity was retained, in the soloing and the interaction of the rhythm section. I also felt that somehow, for whatever reason, our version of "In A Sentimental Mood" was really appropriate to what Ellington and Strayhorn were trying to say. It was nice.

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