Tribute by Gary Gomes
The passing of Larry Coryell was a truly sad event for his generation of guitarists and for music lovers, especially in jazz and fusion. One of the most talented and hard-working guitarists I have ever seen, he was widely known as the "Godfather of Fusion." However, I view this as a bit inaccurate- Coryell was there at fusion’s birth and must be given equal rights as a progenitor, not just a witness to the child.
Coryell was born in Galveston, Texas and played in rock bands as a youth. He went to Mannes School of Music in New York. Berklee often mentioned he went there, but as he told a friend of mine once, he was kicked out for smoking grass.
Coryell’s first big break was as a player in the Chico Hamilton Quintet and he soon moved onto the legendary (some say classic) edition of the Gary Burton Quartet, producing jazz classics like Duster and Carla Bley’s A Genuine Tong Funeral. However, Coryell was also a member of a legendary pioneering jazz rock group The Free Spirits and made a record with them in 1967. According to Ritchie Unterberger, the group was disappointed with the record and felt it did not capture them at their best. However, the late sixties was a busy time for Coryell- he played as a sideman in Steve Marcus’ Count’s Rock Band, was involved in a quartet with Jack Bruce, Mitch Mitchell and genius keyboard player Mike Mandel, and made a notable appearance on the Jazz Composer’s Orhestra Asssciation piece "Communications 8," playing a complicated feedback solo through an Ampeg amplifier. Ampegs, by the way, were built to produce very clean sounds, more so than even Fender amplifiers, so this was a really early experiment with controlled feedback. The Marshalls, HiWatts and Sunn amps Hendrix used were better suited to this kind of experimentation. But the album was a highlight of a massive endeavor which featured players as strong as Cecil Taylor, Roswell Rudd, Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri and Pharoah Sanders.
The thing that first brought Coryell to my attention is a studio recording called Coryell, his second solo studio album in collaboration Mike Mandel in parts, Chuch Rainey, Albert Stinson, and Bernard "Pretty" Purdie" and especially the songs "Sex" and "The Jam with Albert." The former is a Coryell vocal, and was about Coryell’s desire to have relations with his wife, and the direction of his spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy (also, at one point, guru to John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, Brian Auger and Narada Michael Walden). However, it was the guitar work- complicated chords, kaleidoscopic wah pedal work. Hendrix and others (like David O’List) heard Coryell and were either dumbstruck (mostly the rock guitarists), or dismissive (Robert Wyatt, for instance). The slowed-down school of electric guitar playing even then, perhaps because when you heard Coryell, you realized that a lot of the faster rock guitarists were just beginning to enter Coryell’s level of proficiency. Coryell came off like a cross between Kenny Burrell and Jimi Hendrix, equally at home in either world. The piece that have him "guitar god" status was the jam with Albert. Although parts of the solo are overdubbed, the guitar work is just virtuosic. No rock guitarist at the time (1969) came close to his level of proficiency. But it was also gritty and the guitar sound was rock, not jazz. The support, by Purdie and Stinson (on acoustic bass) was astonishing as well- this was about as close to a perfect jam as one could want. This was stages beyond his earlier work with Gary Burton and more accessible than his work with JCOA.
Coryell also continued to play on numerous recording dates as a sideman. Among the most notable and interesting were his collaborations with John McLaughlin called Spaces, which featured such future leaders of fusion as Miroslav Vitous, Billy Cobham, and Chick Corea. Spaces was less rock-ish in tone, but the interplay between Coryell and McLaughlin is particularly astounding. You can hear where McLaughlin and Cobham might be in a couple of years with Mahavishnu; Corea with Return to Forever, and Vitous’ tenure with Weather Report was already underway. The two McLaughlin/Coryell pieces are stunning guitar work, with each in friendly combat- McLaughlin smoother, Coryell pushing himself to astonishing levels. Both were at or near the top of their technical ability, and the acoustic "Rene’s Theme" is a guitar duet for the ages.
Coryell, in 1970, also worked with Wolfgang Dauner’s Et Cetera, along with English virtuoso drummer Jon Hiseman on a very experimental Jazz fusion LP that did not do well in the U.S.
His most Hendrix-inspired playing could be found on Live at the Village Gate and the insane guitar work on Barefoot Boy, especially on the piece "Gypsy Queen" in which one can hear a very Fripp-like approach, but developed independently.
Coryell did try to reach for rock stardom through a vocal route, but his voice was similar to Al Kooper- not a voice that would inspire hit singles. But he did achieve a certain degree of commercial success with the Eleventh House, a fusion band apparently modeled after the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with a dynamite drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, an alumnus of McCoy Tyner and Weather Report, and his long term companion, Mike Mandel. In many ways, the Eleventh House was a better group than Mahavishnu live, but the band collapsed after two releases, and Coryell started to back away from amplified music in the mid-1970’s, returning to it occasionally in later years.
Coryell also formed a guitar trio with McLaughlin and Paco de Luca, but he was replaced by Al DiMeola because of an on-again, off-again heroin addiction. He also sponsored (and had a love affair) with then up and coming guitarist Emily Remler, who died of a heart attack/drug overdose before her career could reach its peak.
Coryell’s later career turned out some outstanding recordings, including an guitar version of Stravinsky’s "Firebird." But his career did not seem to flourish as consistently as, say McLaughlin’s or Alan Holdsworth. When I listened to Holdsworth’s original live recordings with Soft Machine, I was quite surprised at how similar his sound was to Coryell’s. Holdsworth is a continuous flow player, but Coryell was, at times, pursuing that as well.
There are very personal two Coryell stories I can share. When I saw him at Amherst College in 1974, someone asked him what he thought of Hendrix. He quipped, "Well, he showed you didn’t have to be white to play the blues." This makes sense when one thinks about the time and all the superstar blues guitarists, at least in terms of record sales, were people like Clapton, Page, Beck, Winter, and Bloomfield- B.B. King was acknowledged, but definitely not as popular.
The second story was related by a friend of mine whose brother had passed away a few years earlier. They were both music fanatics and fans of Coryell, and my friend told Coryell about this and the times they had seen Coryell together. Coryell dedicated the next number to my friend’s late brother, which was a really sweet thing to do and brought tears to my friend’s eyes.
Coryell, to my mind, was arguably the greatest and most far ranging guitarist of his generation, but was not a superstar to the public. In the long run, that doesn’t matter. He contributed so much in his lifetime and covered so much turf, it was like capturing lightning in a bottle to tie him down. The key legacy of an artist is the art one makes, not the money made or popular acclaim. Those are nice, but beside the point. From free music to rock, from jazz to classical, Coryell was able to cover most niches of modern music, and he trail blazed new directions. That’s a phenomenal legacy.
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