Larry Coryell (1943-2017)

Larry Coryell, a guitarist who started out playing rock ‘n’ roll as a teen but wound up pioneering jazz-rock fusion starting in the mid-1960s and then psychedelic fusion in the early ’70s, influencing a generation of guitarists, died on Feb. 19. He was 73.

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Born in Texas and raised in Seattle, Coryell studied journalism at the University of Washington while taking guitar lessons privately. In 1965 when he was 22, Coryell moved to New York and took classical guitar lessons. He arrived in the city just as instrumental folk and electric rock were intriguing skilled musicians and captivating young audiences.

Coryell’s early group, the Free Spirits, was a fascinating hybrid of folk and R&B, combining the California sound of the Byrds and bluesy pop instrumental riffs found on R&B singles by groups such as the Coasters. The Free Spirits’ first album, Out of Sight and Sound (1966), featured Jim Pepper (ts,fl), Larry Coryell (g,sitar,vcl), Columbus “Chip” Baker (g,vcl), Chris Hills (el-b) and Bob Moses (d).

The following year, Coryell shifted to a more bluesy avant-garde jazz style on drummer Bob Moses’s Love Animal (1967), an album that showcased Coryell’s sophistication and penchant for experimentation.

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But it wasn’t until Coryell’s appearance on Gary Burton’s albums Duster (April 1967) and Lofty Fake Anagram (Aug. 1967) that he and Gary began to invent a new approach that combined the dreamy energy of rock with the wanderlust of jazz improvisation and rural romanticism of country. The album had a profound effect on young guitarists, including a teenage John Scofield, who told me the following last night from Seattle:

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“Larry was at the vanguard of the jazz-rock movement and could play rock, blues, country and jazz. He was the first guitarist I heard who put it all together. In 1967, I was 16 when my guitar teacher told me about Duster by the Gary Burton Quartet. The album still sounds great today. I became a big fan. I first met Larry in 1975 when I was new on the scene. He befriended me and helped me enormously. You couldn’t help but love him. He’ll be sorely missed.”

Coryell’s rock guitar began to absorb San Fransisco influences and flowered on his first leadership albums Lady Coryell (1968) and Coryell (1969), which included Jam With Albert.

In March 1973, Coryell recorded Introducing The Eleventh House, which established his long-form psychedelic fusion band, featuring Randy Brecker (tp), Mike Mandel (p,synt), Larry Coryell (g), Danny Trifan (b) and Alphonse Mouzon (d). In the early 1970s, with the rise of FM radio, 8-track tape players, and more affordable high-end component stereos systems, Chick Corea formed Return to Forever, John McLaughlin started the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the supergroup Weather Report was launched. Touring college towns and campuses in the ’70s, jazz-rock fusion bands fired the imaginations of university students looking for a more mystical form of rock that abandoned vocals for long, expressive instrumental solos. By the mid-1970s, fusion bands—with their ability to crank up the volume of electrified instruments, including synthesizers—soared in popularity, marginalizing the appeal of acoustic jazz and sidelining the traditional form until its revival in the 1980s.

Here are my favorite Larry Coryell tracks that trace his eclecticism and influence on the development of fusion:

Here’s Larry Coryell in 1966 with the Free Spirits playing Cosmic Daddy Dancer (dig traces of the Coasters’ Yakety Yak)…

Here’s Coryell with Bob Moses on Rock Fantasy in 1967…

Here’s Coryell and Gary Burton with Steve Swallow (b) and Roy Haynes (d), on Gary’s Duster album, playing Ballet

Here’s Coryell’s Jam With Albert on his album, Coryell (the “Albert” here is electric bassist Albert Stinson…

Here’s Coryell and Miroslav Vitous (b) and Billy Cobham (d) playing Gloria’s Step from Coryell and John McLauglin’s Spaces album in 1970…

And here’s Ism-Ejercicio from Introducing the Eleventh House with Larry Coryell, recorded in 1973…