(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 8, 2001) - In what was undoubtedly intended as a criticism, a leading jazz discographer once wrote of guitarist Larry Coryell that he "never seemed able to make up his mind whether he wanted to be Chet Atkins, Jimi Hendrix or Segovia."
Of course, what the critic missed was that Coryell's intention was not to be any of the above. Like any dedicated, creative artist, Larry Coryell has always sought to be himself. While it is true that in his case this has taken him stylistically all over the musical map, from Ravel to Rimsky-Korsakov to Robert Johnson to rock and beyond, this doesn't so much reflect a crisis of identity as an omnivorous musical sensibility appropriate to his era.
"There was nothing that I ever did, no conscious effort to do one kind of behavior or another," said Larry Coryell, in a recent phone interview from a recording studio in Los Angeles.
"I can't explain what it was," said Coryell, widely considered to be one of the pioneers of jazz-rock fusion in the late 1960s. "But I can explain that the thinking of the time was that we didn't want to emulate our heroes. That wasn't kosher. 'Don't try to play the old cliches, play like yourself' -- that's what people were saying.
"And what happened was, it's the same thing an older, more successful writer of ficition might say to a student: write about what you know. And what I knew -- of course I knew jazz, but I also knew country, blues and some rock and roll. And that came out."
At heart, however, Coryell was and always has been a jazz guitarist, and it will be the straight-ahead jazz side that will be primarily on display on Saturday night at 7:30 at Searles Castle, when Coryell performs in the Rave Review Music Series accompanied by a group assembled by artistic director Robert Kelly. For more information, call 528-8082.
Coryell was born in Texas and grew up in the state of Washington, where early on he was exposed to as much blues and country music as jazz. His first instrument was ukelele, and when his hands got bigger he "decided to move to a larger instrument with more pain," as he puts it.
Coryell dropped out of the journalism program at the University of Washington in 1965 and made his way to New York, where he began jamming in Greenwich Village jazz clubs. He eventually joined Chico Hamilton's band, and within a year made his recording debut on Hamilton's album, "The Dealer."
Fusion, the amalgamation of jazz improvisation and rock instrumentation and dynamics, was in its embryonic stages, and Coryell's hard-edged cutting tone on his electric guitar was the perfect vehicle for the new style. He soon found himself performing with fusion pioneers Gary Burton and Herbie Mann. With drummer Bob Moses and saxophonist Jim Pepper, Coryell formed Free Spirits in 1966. The group's psychedelic album, "Out of Sight and Sound" -- on which Coryell sang and played sitar in addition to guitar -- anticipated the jazz-rock music of bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears and the Electric Flag.
Along with pianist Mike Mandel and saxophonist Steve Marcus, he formed the group Foreplay in 1969, which a few years later morphed into the better known band Elevnth House, which alongside groups like John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea's Return to Forever and Weather Report, led the fusion charge in the early 1970s.
But ever the restless soul, Coryell picked up the acoustic guitar in the mid-'70s and recorded several duo and trio albums with the likes of Emily Remler, John Scofield, Steve Khan, Joe Beck and John McLaughlin.
In the 1980s, he toured and recorded with guitar ensembles including McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia, Tal Farlow, Scofield, Larry Carlton and John Abercrombie. His resume also includes work with Stephane Grappelli, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and Kenny Barron. He has also recorded albums of solo guitar, Brazilian music and classical music, and is currently writing his second guitar instruction manual.
As of late, Coryell has been concentrating on mainstream bebop, or straight-ahead jazz. His program on Saturday will draw heavily on the repertoire from his most recent album, "Inner Urge" (High Note), which in addition to several of his own compositions includes numbers by Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson and Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." "I've really learned a lot more just about music in general, and straight-ahead in particular," he said, referring to mainstream jazz bebop.
"With staight-ahead, you can take ten different players and have them improvise on the same composition and get ten different versions." As of earlier this week, Coryell hadn't yet met Kelly or any of the musicians he will be playing with at the castle. "It's a prepared meeting between two professionals who've never played before," he said, describing how he sees the event unfolding. "At our age, speaking for myself, if you know that a guy can play -- and I have no reason to believe that Robert can't play - we'll have a preparatory, exploratory session just the two of us -- or maybe with the other musicians, too.
"We're just going to have a meeting of the minds and enjoy it, see how we sound, settle on a program that's effective for everyone. " Coryell has gone beyond thinking of himself as the famed "fusion guitarist."
He even prefers to think of himself as a musician rather than as a guitarist. "Over the years I hope I've become more of a musican and less of a guitarist."
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 11, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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