HEAVY FRETTING

It’s been said that if you can  play jazz, you can play any music. Valid or not in a convoluted sense, I find that those who play jazz often have no interest in playing any other music, as music of lesser harmonic values diminishes, as it were, in the eyes (and ears) of a jazz player. I’m reminded of an interview some years ago with guitar great Bucky Pizzarelli, when he spoke of the torture of playing anonymous doo-wop sessions back in the day. Pimply odes built on four chords put money in his pocket but backhanded his muse.

Guitar legend (and that term is most apt here) Larry Coryell speaks mildly as well on the subject. “Even the best rock ’n’ roll seems harmonically primitive,” Coryell tells Folio Weekly. “At least in terms of my training.” However, the now-72-year-old jazz titan has taken his skills, chops — whatever you want to call it — the other way in directions light years beyond his contemporaries, often pulling them along up to the rarefied realms. Countless musicians have looked on and found inspiration in Coryell’s five decades of constant exploration, coupled with a solid and learned reverence for tradition. And unlike many jazzers, he kept an open ear to other noted non-jazz guitarists (a receptivity that remains to this day). When asked who outside his element he finds worthwhile, up came names that define the instrument’s many voices: “Hendrix, Segovia, Paco de Lucía, and Chet Atkins.” (Serious listeners might find a thread in there.)

Raised in rural Washington state (deep in Yakima Valley), the young Coryell honed his chops memorizing riffs of guitarists Tal Farlow and Wes Montgomery to exactitudes. In September 1965, he made the move to New York City and immediately made his mark with major names like Sonny Stitt and Chico Hamilton. Then came the future in the form of The Gary Burton Quartet and the language of fusion was born. His time with vibraphonist Burton coincided with the rise of the previously marginalized rock instrumentalist; Coryell’s own rise paralleled that of the Claptons, the Becks and the Jimis. He made the most of it by easing from the confines of the traditional jazz sideman to something else altogether. In the process, Coryell helped raise the bar for others as well as himself.

Then came his solo release, Spaces, in 1969 and the new jazz thing, later called “fusion” was birthed. A monumental LP, Spaces featured Coryell as leader with names, at the time, known mainly to hardcore aficionados who went on to unheard-of (for jazz) popularity in the marketplace. A pre-Miles-and-Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Billy Cobham and Miroslav Vitous (a founder of Weather Report) came together for the project that turned jazz (and the guitar) on its ear. It’s never faded from sight, though it is a distant back page to the leader. “The record was producer Danny Weiss’ idea,” says Coryell today. “I contributed suggestions for musicians.”

I can chalk up this nonchalance to the string of projects that have kept him busy since. From crossovers and meetings of the minds with Jack Bruce and Friends and Mitch Mitchell to numerous “serious” outings with Michael Mantler’s Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and stunning multiple guitar trios, to quartets where Larry Coryell more than meets his accompanists halfway. He has even stepped into Indian music with bansuri flute giant Ronu Majumdar of the group Bombay Jazz. Coryell was wide open on the approach to Indian music. “I found the bending of the notes on the sitar, for instance, to be much like the string bending of a blues player’s.”

So what interests him today? “Newer, younger players, like Robert Glasper,” says Coryell. Like Coryell, pianist-arranger Glasper moves in different directions, from heady big band to working with self-proclaimed genius Kanye West. “What sustains me is my desire to improve,” offers Coryell, “to do new things and play new things.”

It’s the first trait of career jazz musicians to never sit still. Unlike commercial music (“I wouldn’t know how to do it,” Coryell admits) where one combination or trademark hit song defines an artist in the public’s mind, jazz musicians are free to redefine as they choose. Come to think of it, it’s much like all of that aforementioned harmonic complexity rendering the solo space a wide open canvas every time. Simply put, one cannot point to a single phase of Larry Coryell’s career call it a defining moment. There have been dozens.

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