The sudden passing on Sunday of guitarist Larry Coryell at age 73 marked the passing of a generational pioneer in jazz music, even though his gifts as an instrumentalist far outweighed his reputation.
Coryell has rightly been viewed as one of the guiding forces in fusion, an electric offshoot of jazz that made the music instantly accessible to a rock generation already immersed in stylistic revolution during the late 1960s. Indeed, Coryell albums like “Space,” along with his earliest works fronting the funk/fusion troupe The Eleventh House, were as genre defining as any of the Miles Davis offshoot projects led by Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Curiously, his music always seemed more reactionary than the work of those contemporaries. But it wasn’t jazz Coryell was rebelling against. He met the boogie-centric jam groups earning airtime on FM radio on their own turf and wildly outdistanced their level of musicianship while still retaining a jazz sensibility. In many ways, Coryell’s electric music had more in common with the jazzier experimentation of Frank Zappa than anything the Davis camp was conjuring.
But for my money, the real magic came in the recordings and performances that went acoustic. Between 1977 and 1979, Coryell released six remarkable acoustic albums. Some were expert collaborations with other guitarists similarly pigeonholed by their electric work (Steve Khan, Philip Catherine and a young John Scofield). But the best were two solo sessions from 1978 – “Standing Ovation” and “European Impressions,” both of which scream for reissue treatment.
Fast forward two decades and you have what may be Coryell’s finest overall recording, 1999’s “Private Concert.” Despite the title, this was a studio date of solo and multi-tracked “duets” displaying Coryell’s acoustic brilliance on Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Brother K.”
It was with these acoustic records that Coryell’s stylistic mash-ups of jazz, blues, swing and Eastern music giddily collided in a sound both daring and delicate.
Coryell was wildly prolific through the rest of his career, even as far as completing a weekend engagement at New York’s Iridium club the night before his death. He was also an extrovert on and offstage, suggesting the animation he invested in his playing carried into his everyday life. Or vice versa.
“Everything here is true… I think,” Coryell inscribed to me in a copy of his autobiography “Improvising: My Life in Music” following a Louisville concert in 2007. Coryell may have been referencing the descriptions he penned about music in his book. But the music itself? Coryell didn’t need to doubt himself. Every note was true.