Larry Coryell: the guitar god you’ve never heard of


Larry Coryell: the guitar god you’ve never heard of



May 19, 2017

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Larry Coryell spent his last night playing at New York’s Iridium jazz club for a crowd that was well aware of his reputation as one of the greatest guitarists in the world.

Backed by a talented sibling tandem on bass and drums whose combined age was still younger than the 50-year-old composition “Good Citizen Swallow,” Coryell, white-haired and in a black blazer and jeans, served up a jazz master class, with some of his own compositions, including “The Dragon Gate,” and others, such as Miles Davis’ “Someday My Prince Will Come” and Luiz Bonfá’s “Black Orpheus.” At 73, Coryell played the part of venerable master: performing fleetly on the burners and with restraint on the ballads.

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At the end of the night, he returned to his hotel room, fell asleep and didn’t wake. At some point during the morning of Feb. 19, 2017, heart failure claimed Coryell.

Headlines that day marked the passing of the “Godfather of Fusion,” a title that reduced a singular talent to a tagline. Coryell’s marriage of jazz and rock was a development for which he was best known. But the Galveston native was also an instrumentalist and composer who sought to slip stylistic boundaries like a magician does chains.


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Coryell never made one of Rolling Stone’s greatest-guitarist lists, despite the fact that he could play circles around almost all of those included. And his work – dozens and dozens of recordings – is woefully underrepresented in the digital sphere. But he was one of the most important and influential players on an instrument that has largely defined popular music for more than half a century.

“He was remarkable because he could push things so far off the edge while still always having this connection to the whole history of the instrument,” guitarist Bill Frisell says.

The great songwriter Jimmy Webb, who wrote a composition called “Gloryell” for his old friend, puts Coryell “in that very exclusive circle of guys who played on an almost superhuman level where your mouth just falls open in astonishment. He could hang in there with anybody that ever played that instrument.”

Though Coryell’s renown faded some after the 1970s, he remained active until his death. Coryell expanded the breadth of his work into classical and opera. Once capable of mind-warping speed on the fretboard, he found great beauty in more subdued ballads. Though he never gave up the fast stuff entirely. Coryell left behind one last masterwork with a reunited and revamped version of his ’70s fusion band The Eleventh House that will be released June 2.

The album connects back to Coryell’s peak years – a reminder of popular musical territory he’d staked out long ago when he looked beyond the limitations of genre in his music.

“He was a virtuoso who had no problem playing country and rock ‘n’ roll in his jazz playing,” friend and fellow guitar great John Scofield says. “It was really new at the time he did it. Now you hear all kinds of people trying to play like that. Back then, nobody had done it. He came from this bebop background, but his search was for a higher musical place.”

Six-string pioneer

Coryell’s Texas roots aren’t deep, but he was born to a musician and a music teacher in Galveston on April 2, 1943. His father ran off, and Coryell’s mother took the toddler and moved to the Seattle area, where he grew up with a ukulele in hand.

She started him on piano early – age 4 or 5 – and Coryell didn’t find the guitar until his teens, when he started playing in high school bands. He kept playing while at the University of Washington, though he studied journalism, which he thought would be a more viable career.

Still, Coryell found gigs playing jazz around Seattle, eventually changing course and gave up journalism.

In 1965, Coryell moved to New York and joined Chico Hamilton’s band for the drummer’s “The Dealer” album. That year, Coryell made the first of two albums as part of a band called the Free Spirits. The band played instrumental rock with some jazzy leanings. Coryell then joined a boundary-pushing fusion quartet led by organist Gary Burton.

The Gary Burton Quartet would release “Lofty Fake Anagram” and “Duster” in 1967, two recordings that would prove a crucial act in the development of jazz fusion, which sought to marry jazz tradition to the more rhythmically linear push of rock, along with some other embellishments, such as distortion and feedback.

Scofield cites “Duster” as a transformative album for him. “They were finding new ground,” he says.

Frisell recalls seeing Burton’s Quartet in Denver in 1967 as part of a touring jazz festival.

“Hearing Larry play was life-changing for me,” Frisell says. “That was really the beginning, the DNA of everything I’ve done since then.”

Others took notice, too. The famed New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett called Coryell “the most inventive and original guitarist since Charlie Christian,” referring to the pioneering electric jazz guitarist of the 1930s.

High times

After his short time in Burton’s band, Coryell’s career caught fire. He released his first album, “Lady Coryell,” in 1968 and “Coryell,” a year later.

The albums were free in their use of musical forms, and several of the songs had vocals. They leaned as heavily on psychedelic rock as jazz.

“Spaces,” released in 1970, paired Coryell with another progressive guitar virtuoso in John McLaughlin. It is widely regarded as one of Coryell’s best and best-known albums.

In 1973, Coryell started The Eleventh House, a new fusion ensemble that hosted several players during its three-year run – drummer Alphonse Mouzon, bassist John Lee and trumpeter Randy Brecker among the best known.

Coryell’s popularity peaked during this era, with the swinging exploratory group playing festivals and bigger gigs.

With the success came its spoils, too. Coryell’s friends acknowledge he went deep into a rabbit hole of drink and drugs.

“I remember once he walked into this kitchen and said, ‘This is going to change your life,’ ” Webb says. “And he slapped a big baggie of cocaine on the kitchen table. And he was right.”

Scofield says Coryell “was deep in it, just like everybody else in the ’70s, myself included.”

But those who know him also point out that Coryell was one of the first musicians they knew to seek help for addiction when he sobered up in the early ’80s.

“It wasn’t just that he pulled out at the other end,” Scofield says. “He was very forthcoming about his own struggles. I know he was a big help to other musicians and people who wanted to do the same.”

Guitar bonding

By the ’80s, fusion had largely run its course. His mind clear, Coryell saw fewer boundaries for music than he did in his youth. His playing relied less on speed and took on a spacious beauty.

“The forcefulness in his playing is one side of the coin,” says his son Julian, a distinguished guitarist whose large body of work includes recordings with Carole King, Alanis Morissette and Aimee Mann. “But the flip side is this incredible sensitivity. By that time, he didn’t need to prove anything to himself anymore, and he certainly didn’t need to prove anything to anybody else about his prowess. He’d broken all the speed records that needed to be broken. That’s the thing I miss the most.”

He pauses.

“It’s still too painful for me to listen to any of his music. But the ballads, they just destroy me.”

Coryell’s output in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s is astounding: dozens of albums that touched on classic jazz, blues and classical music. He made a particularly strong 1999 recording with his sons, Julian and Murali, and Mouzon on drums.

“It’s always how we connected best,” Julian says. “Some kids have football with their dad. My dad didn’t do that. We just played guitar.”

More recently, Coryell began writing operas, including one based on “War and Peace” in 2015. He was also working on one tied to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

But no matter how far his journey would go, he always found his way back to jazz. His relationship with the genre is a complicated one. Julian acknowledges that fusion “was always the red-headed step-child in jazz.”

Frisell admits “that word does put a bad taste in people’s mouths.”

But with the passing of time, fusion no longer feels quite like the outcast it was after it peaked in the ’70s. Players such as Flying Lotus in Los Angeles’ contemporary music scene have advanced fusion into the 21st century with some hip-hop and R&B elements, and they’ve done so successfully, too.

“Jazz was always about one thing at the heart of it all,” Julian says. “And that’s freedom. It’s primarily an African-American art form, but not completely an African-American art form. But there are always going to be people who want it to be one thing or another. But it’s really about freedom. Even fusion, which mixes jazz and rock. The rock took from R&B and blues, and that goes back to spirituals and work songs. All of it goes back to the same roots.”

Virtuosic talent

Two years ago, Coryell had a five-night booking planned at New York’s storied Blue Note club, where he imagined a summit of five top-tier guitarists. Plans for that show broke down, and on short notice, he decided to bring back The Eleventh House.

The concerts went well, so a 21st-century version of the group – Coryell, Mouzon, Lee and Brecker with Julian on second guitar – decided to make an album, which they recorded in January 2016.

“Seven Secrets” spills with familial interplay, not just between father and son but between Coryell and Mouzon, whom Julian calls “cosmic brothers.”

“What you’re hearing are masters at the top of their craft,” Julian says. “They don’t have to negotiate anything unnecessary. They’re using music at its highest purpose.”

The music simmers, boils and then cools back off – a wide-ranging set of compositions executed with deep affinity from its performers whose interplay had only grown richer over the years.

Then things went bad.

Coryell had a minor sinus surgery last summer that went poorly and resulted in sepsis and an extended hospitalization. And on Christmas Day last year, Mouzon, who was already fighting cancer, died of cardiac arrest at 68.

The Eleventh House planned to continue without him, with an eight-city tour schedule for June, July and August in support of “Seven Secrets.”

Then Coryell followed his cosmic brother.

“It was definitely not something we were thinking of as his last record by any means,” Julian says.

But in “Seven Secrets” they left behind one final grand piece of art by a group deserving of renewed interest. And if it serves as a portal for a young player to find Coryell’s work, all the better. His youthful work is worthy of rediscovery, and the recordings he made while sober are largely undiscovered treasures.

“The public has a short memory,” Julian says. “But for those that go a little deeper, the architecture of his artistic output is deep and astounding.”

Texas isn’t hurting for great guitarists, most, though not all, operating in blues and rock. In Coryell, the state can claim as a native a jack of all trades, stylistically, who was a master of them all – a Hendrixian talent that didn’t burn out at 27 but rather kept exploring for decades, long enough for too many people to forget about him.

“The great thing about jazz is if you have a career in it, it can be for a long time,” Scofield says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young. You can keep learning things your entire life. Of course, the other problem is that it’s jazz.”

He laughs.

“And very few jazz players become household names. But from this bebop background, Larry found a higher musical place. He was a virtuoso, but also nobody else played like him.”



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