Larry Coryell

Larry Coryell, Past, Present and Future

By Martin Z. Kasdan Jr.

Of all the presentations offered by the Louisville Jazz Society over the past several years, nothing has excited me as much as the upcoming Larry Coryell Trio concert. Coryell, for all practical purposes, was my introduction to the art of jazz guitar when, as a high school student in 1968, I first heard the now-classic Gary Burton Quartet albums In Concert (Live at Carnegie Hall) and Duster, both of which featured Coryell. Think back to 1968 for a moment. There was excitement in the rock music world, what with the Beatles having gone psychedelic and bands such as the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Jefferson Airplane improvising at great lengths. While the guitarists of these groups, as well as Pete Townshend of the Who, Jeff Beck (on the cusp of going solo from the Yardbirds) and others were experimenting with feedback and other new ways of expressing themselves, the jazz world had yet to become aware of the electric music that Miles Davis was recording for later release. It was Coryell who harnessed the energy and AMPLIFICATION of the rock experimentalists for use within the jazz idiom.

Following his departure from Burton, Coryell recorded a series of albums which covered the bases from the burgeoning jazz-rock fusion movement to acoustic explorations with the group Oregon, to straightahead efforts. While many rock fans know Gabor Szabo's "Gypsy Queen" from the Santana medley, which also covered Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman," Coryell took the energy several steps higher in an extended workout on Barefoot Boy. His work with the late Herbie Mann on Memphis Underground remains classic and he virtually led the all-star band billed as the Herbie Mann Reunion Band, in Mann's last performance this past spring at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Since the early 70s, Coryell has continued to record prolifically (at least by jazz standards). He released several gorgeous guitar duet albums with such notables as Philip Catherine and the late Emily Remler, as well as leading the powerhouse fusion band the Eleventh House. He has also released transcriptions of European-style classical music, including works by Ravel, Stravinsky and the very American Gershwin. His straightahead work has not languished either, as there are several albums out featuring bassist Buster Williams and other mainstream luminaries. He has continued to keep in touch with his acoustic muse with some superb recordings on the Shanachie label, while updating his fusion approach with his old compatriot, saxophonist Steve Marcus, on Count's Jam Band Revisited [a nod to the original Count's Rock Band albums], featuring drummer Steve Smith and bassist Kai Eckhardt.

When Coryell comes to Louisville for both a concert at the Big Rock Park Festival on Sunday, October 5 and a night at the Jazz Factory on Monday October 6, he will feature Mark Egan on bass and Paul Wertico on drums. Egan first came to prominence with the original edition of the Pat Metheny Group, before leaving for other musical ventures. Wertico, too, is a Metheny alumnus, with many non-Metheny recordings under his belt as well. An earlier version of this trio, with Wertico on drums, but Larry Gray on bass, recently released The Power Trio - Live in Chicago, on Highnote Records. This CD, recorded over the course of several sets at the famed Jazz Showcase in the Windy City, concentrates on standards, with just one Coryell original, "Good Citizen Swallow." This disk opens with a fast version of the standard "Autumn Leaves," with Coryell playing superb mainstream jazz and allowing brief solo space to his musical companions. "Black Orpheus" is a beautifully rendered gentle samba somewhat reminiscent of Charlie Byrd. The gentle mood is carried over into the next piece, the Gershwin classic "Our Love Is Here To Stay," performed by Coryell as an unaccompanied solo. Gray and Wertico return for "Star Eyes," which starts out with a swaying Latin beat before moving to a walking bass straightahead swing style. Coryell's solo builds in intensity without going over the top, giving way to a plucked solo by Gray. Wertico then trades licks with the others before the song ends, but not before Coryell inserts a fleeting quote from the chestnut "Broadway." This is followed by another solo, this time on the Beatles' "Something." The trio pays homage to Wes Montgomery next, on the Montgomery tune "Bumpin' On Sunset." Coryell's "Good Citizen Swallow," presumably written for bassist Steve Swallow, follows, before the concluding blues line penned by Milt Jackson, "Bags' Groove."

Coryell was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his forthcoming release, entitled Tricycles, featuring the current lineup. As good as The Power Trio - Live in Chicago is, this may even surpass it. The material is almost all original (primarily by Coryell), with two Monk covers and the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home." There is an energy level here which reinforces my high expectations of this show (I had already written most of this by the time the CD arrived). For example, the second tune on this disk, Coryell's "Dragon Gate," has been transformed from the solo acoustic showpiece featured on the Shanachie Dragon Gate album to a workout reminiscent of Coryell's work with former John Coltrane Quartet members Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones on "Treats Style" from the 1968 album Lady Coryell. The title song "Tricycles" is penned by bassist Egan and is slightly reminiscent of some of Metheny's less pop-oriented material. "Good Citizen Swallow," also found on The Power Trio - Live in Chicago, is reinterpreted here. Coryell and his colleagues virtually caress Monk's timeless ballad "Round Midnight," which offers Wertico an opportunity to show off his tasteful brushwork. In short, The Power Trio - Live in Chicago offers a good sketch of Coryell's working group, while we await the release of Tricycles.

Through the efforts of Larry's brother Jim, a fellow Louisville Jazz Society member, I was able to interview Larry via phone shortly before he left to go to Japan. In a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed everything from the lamentable lack of CD reissues of most of the Gary Burton Quartet albums, to his work with Herbie Mann, to his current working trio. Regarding his appearance with the Herbie Mann Reunion Band at the 2003 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I mentioned that to me, he (Coryell) seemed to be glowing. He responded by saying that "I wanted him to have the very best experience possible on his last performance in front of the public," after first referring to Mann as a "great friend."

I asked whether he was still doing some of his classical transcriptions and he mentioned that he had recently performed some of these with another guitarist and a violinist in Orlando, but that these pieces were not part of his current repertoire. He stated that he was looking forward to his performance in Louisville, saying that "We want to support the Jazz Society . . . and we don't take that [support] for granted."

As to Tricycles, he stated several times that "I needed to have it . . . as it really represents what we do," which turned out to be a well-founded statement, as noted above.

In closing, I wish to thank Larry Coryell for 35 years of listening pleasure, for taking time out of his busy schedule to allow me to interview him and for the advance copy of Tricycles. I look forward to seeing him soon and hope to see the Louisville jazz community come together to support him and his excellent trio.