Larry Coryell: Making the Changes


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"This is all Coltrane, from his early/middle/late period, whatever that means!" laughs guitarist Larry Coryell. He is sitting backstage in the green room at Iridium in 2009, describing a chart he is about to try out with organist Joey DeFrancesco. "And then this part here is very much like 'All Blues,' like Miles," he says, humming the line: "Bah-deh-doo-deh, DAY-deh-doo-dee, doo-dah-doo-dah, duh—it's in that same chord, that same mode." Indicating the next section, he continues, "And then it goes, here, into something more like Stan Kenton, there [pointing] and then it gets into an implied 12-tone fugue later on here," he says, singing the part: "Bah-doo-dah-duh, bah-doo-dah-DAH, doo-dah dah, doo-dah dah, dah-dah—like that." The chart, a so-called 'production number,' serves as a microcosm of Coryell's career, a mixing and matching of improvised musics that, for all its eclectic experimentation, still retains a distinct musical personality. "With jazz as a foundation, the music that we do can be taken in any direction, as long as the quality stays good [and] there's a musical reason [for it]." And what qualifies as a good reason? That, he affirms, can't really be verbalized: "It either works or it doesn't."

Born in Galveston, TX, congenitally deaf in his right ear, transplanted to Richland in southeast Washington State at seven, Coryell fell in love with guitar playing early on, listening to records like Chet Atkins' Finger Style Guitar (his first) and trying to cop licks off the radio hit parade, like Billy Butler's playing on Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk, Pt. I" or Rick Derringer's solo on "Hang On Sloopy." He took lessons with John LaChappelle, a local jazz player, and tried to copy the styles of jazz guitarists Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Les Paul and Johnny Smith from their recordings.

After high school, Coryell briefly gigged around the Tri-City area, playing blues and rhythm and blues, then moved to Seattle, ostensibly to study journalism but in fact spending most of his energy making the local jazz scene, where he jammed with Gabor Szabo and even got a chance to hang out with Wes Montgomery. Coryell's perfectionist attitude and strong work ethic began to manifest themselves as his guitar technique and reputation began to grow, alongside his more destructive appetites for drugs and alcohol.

At 22, Coryell was a big fish in the Seattle jazz pond, dreaming of deeper waters, so he packed his Gibson Super 400 and two amps into a partially-paid-for blue Volkswagon Beetle and drove out to New York City, arriving in September 1965, where he checked out musicians like Grant Green and Charles Lloyd, experimented with LSD, consorted with rock-blues guitarists Robbie Robertson and Michael Bloomfield, sat in at Monday night Village Vanguard jam sessions hosted by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, babysat for neighbor Joanne Brackeen and played with avant-jazzers like Bob Moses and Jim Pepper.

The move proved to be a crucial factor in Coryell's development. "[W]hen you listened to this cutting-edge music in New York City," he notes in his 2007 autobiography, Improvising: My Life in Music (Backbeat Books), "played by true masters of the idiom, it took on a more profound quality. It was as if the players needed the hardships and obstacles they encountered while struggling to make it in New York to be pushed to their highest level...If you survive the fires of competition and intimidation, your sword will be forged into a strong instrument."

It didn't take long for the ambitious guitarist to plug into the scene, making his first recorded appearance soon after on Chico Hamilton's The Dealer, followed by Out of Sight and Sound with his own group, The Free Spirits, with Moses, Pepper and bassist Chris Hills, a stint touring and recording with vibraphonist Gary Burton's band (including the seminal A Genuine Tong Funeral), which at the time included bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Roy Haynes, and even a free jazz session with The Jazz Composer's Orchestra (Communications, JCOA 1968). From the onset Coryell's style was unique, blending elements of blues, rock, country and jazz in ways that, despite making obvious references, avoided overt plagiarism or clichés. Attracted to the heavily amplified electric blues of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, as well as acoustic finger-stylists like Martin Taylor and Lenny Breau, he sought a hybrid sound that would incorporate all of these influences. "I wanted to improve the intellectual content of the limited phraseology of rock and blues playing," he notes in his book, "and, at the same time, to inject more 'down home,' blues-based energy into jazz ideas." In achieving this balance, Coryell became a founding father figure to a legacy of fusion guitarists such as John McLaughlin, Bill Connors, Al Di Meola, Allan Holdsworth, Steve Kahn, Scott Henderson and Mike Stern, among others.

In 1969, Coryell began an association with McLaughlin that led to their collaboration on Spaces, which included an influential acoustic duet, "Rene's Theme"; session producer Danny Weiss took both guitarists to meet guru Sri Chinmoy, who sparked their interest in Eastern philosophy and spirituality. Coryell began to collaborate with Indian classical artists like violinists L. Subramaniam and L. Shankar and bansuri (a transverse bamboo flute) players Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Ronu Majumdar, a direction he still pursues with Bombay Jazz, a quartet featuring Majumdar, Vijay Ghate on tabla, and George Brooks on tenor sax. Coryell reports that he continues to be influenced by "Eastern phrasing" and tries to combine Carnatic (South Indian classical) music with jazz improvisation. "There's a lot of Indian and Arabic musicians who are learning to play on changes and the Americans or Europeans that they play with are now learning to play more of their type of modality and both are complex and very rich," he observes; "If everybody puts the right kind of effort into it, it comes out good."

In 1973 Coryell formed Eleventh House with drummer Alphonse Mouzon and did various fusion-oriented projects with Randy Brecker, Mike Lawrence, Terumasa Hino and Steve Khan, as well as acoustic outings with Philip Catherine, Stephane Grappelli and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. He also began writing an instructional column, "Contemporary Guitar," for Guitar Player magazine and, in 1978, hung out and made an unreleased recording with Miles Davis. His substance abuse during this period became increasingly unmanageable but by 1981 he had cleaned up his act and remains sober to this day. Soon after his recovery, following the exhortations of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Buster Williams, Coryell became a chanting Buddhist, a practice to which he attributes further positive changes in his life.

His work remained voraciously eclectic, including: recording three transcriptions of Stravinsky ballets for Teo Macero; hosting a Tokyo FM radio program featuring jazz and pop musicians; a Brazilian album with producer Creed Taylor, followed by a second collaboration that included a "digital duet" with Wes Montgomery in which Coryell overdubbed the original version of "Bumpin' on Sunset"; a straight-ahead release, Shining Hour, with Kenny Barron, Buster Williams and Marvin "Smitty" Smith; two orchestral commissions, "Concerto pour Cote d'Opal" and "Sentenza del Cuore," the latter to commemorate a terrorist bombing in Italy; adaptations of Barber, Gershwin, Ravel, Rodrigo, and Vivaldi and a variety of fusion projects combining jazz with rock, classical, and new acoustic musics.

Today, after more than 45 years on the scene, Coryell is in great health, living in Florida, happily married and fast becoming an elder statesman of jazz, his chops as fiery as ever, his enthusiasm for the music undampened. He's still searching for the perfect guitar, one that will marry the sound of an acoustic to the playability of an electric, while technically he's trying to effect a smooth sonic transition between passages played with a pick to those executed with thumb and fingers.

While he maintains that his mindset—ie, improvising over song forms by applying scales appropriate to the chord changes—has never really changed over the years, he has gradually assimilated advice he once received from Miles Davis, who tersely remarked, "Don't finish your phrases." As Coryell explains, "When I was coming up in my middle 20s, I was really focused on what I was putting in to a solo and now I'm focused more on what I leave out—that, I think, is more important." As his life and music unfold, Coryell continues to make the changes—musical and otherwise. He feels an obligation to pass on what he knows to younger players, advising them to learn the vocabulary, swing and play in tune, trusting that the spiritual aspect of the music will take care of itself: "The music itself, by osmosis, will bring about the spirituality—just listen to the ending of 'Naima' or just listen to 'Ornithology'—I mean, it's there."

Shortly after our conversation, Coryell takes to the Iridium stage with DeFrancesco and drummer Byron Landham. As he solos over "Au Privave," singing along with his lines, his face breaks out in expressive grimaces and occasional growls of animal pleasure. His playing is a thesaurus of guitar techniques and textures: Wes Montgomery-style thumbed octaves, open-string pedal tones, bell-like false-harmonic arpeggios, searing pentatonic runs, soulful boogaloo vamping, sensitive comping, pithy quotes and trebly surf guitar riffs. On Bobby Timmons' "Moanin,'" his extended solo builds and builds with blazing chops, inspiring the crowd to clap along on the backbeats; for his show-stopping solo acoustic rendition of Ravel's "Bolero," Coryell tunes the bass string to a low D, then unleashes an exhaustive modal exploration, leaving no fret unfingered, evoking shades of Arabic and flamenco melodies, even making a humorous reference to the theme of Star Wars. Occasionally, he tosses his head, waving his silvery mane about as if he's just surprised himself. It's all there in his playing-artistry, passion, surprises—things that "work."

Selected Discography

Chico Hamilton, The Dealer (Impulse, 1966)

Larry Coryell, Spaces (Vanguard, 1970)

Larry Coryell, Barefoot Boy (Flying Dutchman, 1971)

Larry Coryell, Toku Do (Muse, 1987)

Larry Coryell, Monk, Trane, Miles & Me (HighNote, 1998)

Larry Coryell Organ Trio, Impressions: The New York Sessions (Chesky, 2008)

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