Larry Coryell lit up a musical genre

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Town Hall, New York City, 1974

Larry Coryell, Town Hall, New York City, 1974. Photo © photography Raymond Ross Archives.

 

I’m sitting at a table in a club in downtown Chicago with Larry Coryell in between sets. Wearing a sport coat over a white T-shirt and slacks, the man is holding court but is distracted—mainly by his wife, Tracey Coryell, a striking woman who looks to be roughly half of Coryell’s sixty-five years. He interrupts a comment on his hatred of the Internet to turn and tell her, “Baby, you look so beautiful tonight.”

During the next set, he keeps a clear line of sight from the stage to her and pauses a couple times during his solos on jazz standards like “Someday My Prince Will Come” to make eyes at her. When his drummer and bassist leave the stage for Coryell to go it alone on acoustic guitar, he dedicates a spirited performance of Ravel’s Boléro to Tracey, and she blows him a kiss from the back of the room.

 

Originally published as “Power Lines” in Wax Poetics Issue 31, 2008

 

But while his dedication to his wife is made clear, probably few among the crowd of thirty or forty people in this place on a cold May night in 2008 know, or care, that the man onstage is considered one of progenitors of jazz-rock fusion, perhaps even the first on the scene. In 1966, Coryell cofounded the pioneering jazz-rock band the Free Spirits and made his recording debut on drummer Chico Hamilton’s The Dealer. The liner notes state that the twenty-three-year-old Coryell was “an anomaly in that he doubles between jazz and rock and roll. He finds nothing unusual in this. Like many well-known jazz artists, Coryell tends to defy the labels people put on music.”

In 1967, Coryell started a short stint with vibraphonist Gary Burton, recording four albums, the first, Duster, considered by some critics to be the first fusion record. Coryell’s 1972 group the Eleventh House, with drummer Alphonse Mouzon, is still considered one of the stronger fusion groups of the 1970s. His own solo records show that he never felt restrained by any musical boundaries. By piling wild, psychedelic guitar on top of jazz, pop, and funk, and often singing, Coryell was forcefully making fusion earlier than anybody else. But this distinction is merely academic, particularly to the man himself.

 

You’re described in the liner notes on the back of Gary Burton’s 1967 album Duster as being in “the vanguard of a young and long-haired generation of musicians, which is breathing new energy—the energy of rock and roll—into the folk music called jazz.” Was this an early attempt at jazz-rock fusion?

No, it was a jazz group. I was excited that I was gonna do a jazz session. As Wayne Shorter has said, “Jazz means no category.” And about that time, before we were in the studio making that record, a lot of jazz musicians—Don Shirley, Jimmy Giuffre—were doing stuff that was not bebop but was certainly not rock and roll. A lot of it was influenced by folk music. We were focused on the music and bringing new ideas into the jazz pantheon, but, to me, it wasn’t a conscious effort at jazz-rock fusion. Especially because I’m looking across the room at Roy Haynes playing drums, and he played with Charlie Parker, as well as Stan Getz. It was really the last version, up to that point, of the Stan Getz quartet, minus Stan.

I was not a developed musician at that time; I didn’t think I was that great. But I thought I had something original to say, an original voice.

On “One, Two, 1-2-3-4,” you and Steve Swallow are soloing in tandem; he’s matching you on bass.

That’s the way a large segment of underground jazz musicians in New York were playing at that time. This was recorded in early ’67. When I got to New York at the end of ’65, I was completely shocked. It was nothing like I expected. People were playing stuff I’d never heard before, in ways I’d never heard before. My idea of jazz was based on recordings I had heard on the radio growing up in the Northwest, seeing what national acts would come through Seattle.

When I was driving to New York from Washington, I just wanted to play bebop like Tal Farlow. And as I was driving across the country, I heard all this stuff on pop radio that actually had some good music in it. The meaning of the music was more important than the music itself in the case of the hit that was happening at the time in the fall of ’65—“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.

Is that why you decided to sing on your early albums?

I sang because I wanted to, because the Beatles sang, and Bob Dylan sang. And I mean, my God, man, if I couldn’t sing as good as Bob Dylan, I had a problem.

You sing on your debut, 1969’s Lady Coryell, but you also played bass on most of the record.

We were working with the technology of the recording medium. Why should I go get a bass player and have them sit around and wait for me to decide what I wanted? At that time, I remember reading and hearing stories about Bob Dylan and his sessions at Columbia Records: he’d set up the session late and then spend the first three hours writing. It wasn’t a waste of studio time, because the records sold millions. I thought I should have a similar attitude and try to get the most spontaneous stuff I could come up with in the studio rather than going in with everything prepared.

On your next album, Coryell, also released in 1969, you had three different bass players on the session.

In New York at that time, there was a lot of studio work in recording studios, and sometimes your time was limited, and you would call people. One time, I had Ron Carter and Chuck Rainey in the studio at the same time, because both of them were called by accident, and I felt stupid saying, “Ron, you can go home. Come back the next day.” But that’s what happened. It was whoever was available at the time. The producer, Danny Weiss, mainly wanted Bernard Purdie.

A running theme on that record seems to be lust, with songs like “Sex” and “Beautiful Woman.”

Well, it really wasn’t lust. “Sex” was written as a way to make fun of all the other rock-and-roll songs that were prevalent at that time. All these songs were about sex, but they wouldn’t come right out and say it, so it was tongue in cheek. And “Beautiful Woman” was a love song.

What was behind the decision to appear on the cover naked in a garden with your family?

That was based on the John and Yoko thing. Actually, those two children were my analyst’s. Julie [Coryell] and I were both in [psycho]analysis at that time, and we were all very friendly. We lived in a beautiful place outside of the city, and one of my first wife’s family friends was also a photographer, and he took that picture, and we thought it was wonderful.

So were you thinking of this as jazz at this point? “The Jam with Albert” from Coryell is really rocking.

No, I wasn’t thinking of it as bebop, not at all. We wanted to cross over and get some of the market that Cream and Jimi Hendrix had. “The Jam with Albert” was something that we were doing in the studio with Purdie warming up before the producers arrived. Albert [Stinson] had been playing bebop. He was playing electric bass for the first time. There was such pressure to change instruments for jazz musicians in order to adjust to the changing market. At that time, rock and roll was where the excitement was, and you had jazz musician after jazz musician doing anything they could to adjust, because there were some good gigs to be had.

What was the critical reaction to your singing, or maybe just the audience reaction?

Jazz critics didn’t like it. People are subjective about singing, and finally I got so much flak about singing—it was always, “Your guitar playing is much better than your singing”—so I just stopped. I couldn’t take it.

You played on Herbie Mann’s 1969 album, Memphis Underground—what was up with Herbie never wearing a shirt?

I have no idea. I really wasn’t paying attention to that. I was just glad to be in the studio and to be working with a great bandleader like Herbie.

This record had a profound effect on writer Hunter Thompson. In a letter to a friend, he writes: “I’ve worn out two copies of Memphis Underground & burned 2 cords of pinion wood this winter…get naked & gobble mescaline by a huge fire & the whole house vibrating with sound. Try it sometime; it’s fun.” And then a little later, he’s writing to an editor at Rolling Stone about the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and the Stones, saying those might be the best things released at that time “with the possible exception of Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground, which may be the best album ever cut by anybody.”

[laughs] I did not know that. It’s great that we were actually recognized out there, because we did feel that we were capturing the same originality and making the kind of music that could reach a gigantic mass of people in the same manner as the Stones and the Beatles.

Did it?

Well, it sold a lot, apparently. I got scale for that record, and I don’t even remember counting my money. Maybe that’s why Herbie treated me so well during the course of our relationship. Later on, especially right up to when he died, he always paid me very well: first-class tickets, good hotel rooms; maybe it was in appreciation for that.

What was the interplay like between you and fellow guitarist Sonny Sharrock?

Sonny and I really respected each other. We had a healthy, competitive thing going, and he was, again, one of those people trying to find a different voice other than the straightahead emulating of a bebop or swing guitarist.

Why does bassist Miroslav Vitous play on just one track?

He was in Herbie’s band. We were on tour anyway, and the tour ended in Memphis, so that’s where we recorded. Atlantic Studios was there, and Miroslav was there, so I guess Herbie’s thinking was “Let me at least get Miroslav on one track,” because we were doing it with that Memphis rhythm section. That was the whole point, to take a non-jazz rhythm section and play what we played.

Miroslav also plays on your 1970 album Spaces. In fact, everyone on that album played with Miles Davis at some point, including John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, and Chick Corea.

They were coming from a session with Miles when they showed up at the first Spaces session. The first day, the musicians didn’t do anything I asked them to; they played nothing that was on the sheet music. They were so influenced by Miles, they played completely avant-garde.

Was any of this released?

Yeah, “Tyrone” [appears on 1975’s Planet End]. “Tyrone” is hilarious. You got Chick Corea on electric piano playing something like “mares eat oats, and does eat oats” behind a Larry Young blues. That was the first song we tried to play when they arrived at the session, and I wanted it real straight, close to the board, and they did the opposite. Danny Weiss said, “Well, we’re not putting this on the record.” [laughs]

Your 1971 album Fairyland was a live album. What do you remember about this date?

I was homeless and married, I had [my son] Murali, and we had no place to live. Our lease was up, and we were on the road. And we just said, “Well, we’ll wing it in Europe.”

Fairyland was produced by Bob Thiele. How did you meet him?

I met Bob by accident when I was in the Free Spirits. Gabor Szabo was recording for Bob at Impulse. Gabor arranged for us to play on one of his records, and we were late, so we missed the date, but Bob Thiele met us at the studio and was interested. He probably figured if Gabor wanted us on his record, we must be interesting. We met based on a disastrous situation; everybody was upset. Why we were late? I’m sure it was because we were loaded.

So this led to your next album from ’71, Barefoot Boy. Judging from your solo on “Gypsy Queen,” it sounds like Sonny Sharrock rubbed off on you.

Sonny and I were both influenced by latter-day Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, [also] Albert Ayler. We were told not to be emulators of bebop during that time. People whose opinions we respected would say, “Don’t do that. Do your own thing.”

1972’s Offering continued an affiliation with some of the same players from Barefoot Boy. [Keyboardist] Mike Mandel’s solo on “Beggar’s Chant” is insane. Do you have any memory of him playing that?

No. [laughs] “Beggar’s Chant” was a very out-there melody by a musician who was running in our circle named Doug Davis.

Your next album was Introducing the Eleventh House with Larry Coryell from 1972. What was up with that name?

The way astrology is structured, there are twelve houses in the zodiac, and the eleventh house is the area in your life that involves your dealings with friends, hopes, and aspirations. We were trying to become a band like the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever or Soft Machine or Derek and the Dominos.

One track that jumps out is “Yin,” particularly the solos.

We did it in one take, because we’d been playing it for a long time. That composition was written by a German synthesizer player named Wolfgang Dauner. I had done a record date for him a few years previous, and he introduced that tune to me on his record date.

On 1973’s The Real Great Escape, you’re back with the band from Offering. Do you remember when this was recorded?

It was after Offering, before The Eleventh House. The bass player and some other musicians wanted us to do the same kind of record, but I had been listening so much to Marvin Gaye and Carole King, I wanted to go in a different direction. It was very controversial, and there was a lot of arguing about it.

Does “The Real Great Escape” have any relation to the Barefoot Boy track “The Great Escape”?

The only relation it had was [that] Bob Thiele and I did not have the same song in mind when he asked me what the title of a tune was [for Barefoot Boy]. This was a phone conversation, and I told him it was “The Great Escape,” and it wasn’t; it was something else. So, on Bob’s record, that tune—which had another title, I don’t remember what—became “The Great Escape,” because I mistakenly told him that. So when we did the other session, I called that “The Real Great Escape,” because that’s what “The Great Escape” is supposed to be about.

You played with Jimi Hendrix.

We jammed together at a club called the Theme in New York, and I don’t remember anything about it. But plenty of people told me what they thought about it—that he cut me. So what can I say? I don’t remember, and he’s dead, and I’m not. It’s funny; he died in ’70, and nobody has ever reached the level of rock-and-roll playing that he did.

You also played with Eric Clapton.

We sat in with him at Crystal Palace in the ’70s, with Freddie King. He asked me to play the lead line on “Layla.” That was his popular song at the time. I was just passing through London, and my wife insisted that we go.

Did you guys do dual solos?

I don’t remember. Everybody was stoned like crazy on cocaine.

Tell me about meeting Miles Davis.

It was during one of the many times in his life when he was between tours and between phases in his career. He was struggling with drugs too, and when I walked into that house where I was told I could meet Miles and hang out with him, the first thing he did was hand me an almost empty glass of warm Heineken. And I started drinking it, and he said, “Ah, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” Then he punched me as hard as he could in the stomach when I wasn’t looking.

What year was this?

I think it was ’78. He refused to play trumpet, because his mouth hurt too much, because he was snorting too much coke or something. I’m thirty-five years old at that time; I’m still scared of my heroes. I just wanted to be with the great Miles Davis. He arranged a session for me and was trying to get me a deal with Columbia, and he verbally gave me the track. But the Miles Davis family has usurped it, rightfully so, because there’s no documentation.

But he gave you a tape of it.

Somebody got it and sent me a CD. It’s never been assembled, it’s all snippets of takes, and I don’t think the Miles Davis family estate will ever release it. Miles wasn’t playing trumpet on it. It’s very out, not commercial, nothing like when he was playing Cyndi Lauper or Michael Jackson stuff.

Do you think there’s any way it’ll ever come out, or is it just too weird?

It’s not about weird. They have control, and they can’t profit. I listened to it once—it sounded exactly the way it did back when we recorded it. After we recorded it, about a week later, Miles had one version edited together, and he played it over and over for everybody. He called people to say, “Listen to this.”

So he really liked it.

Well, yeah, it was his production of me, and it was a very nice thing that he did. But, you know, I was so sick with my addiction and my alcoholism at that time, I didn’t process it properly. He even asked me to join the band, and I was too afraid to do it. Also, I was touring a lot with [guitarist] Philip Catherine in Europe, and we were making pretty good money.

Miles was a human being, and he had his flaws, but he was Miles. And with him off the scene, at least for musicians my age, we sensed that something was missing. From the overall network in jazz, something was gone.

There’s a cult about Miles, just like there’s a cult about Wynton Marsalis. There was also, to a lesser degree, a cult about Freddie Hubbard. There’s one about Arturo Sandoval. Really good trumpet players can generate a cult around them, because it’s very hard to play trumpet well, and there’s something mystical about the horn.

My music goes on whether I’m being praised or not. The music has a life of its own; that’s why I consider it a privilege to be an artist. I’ve made a lot of music, and I’ve also, more importantly, been able to hear the best musicians of my lifetime. .

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