February 19, 2017 – Larry Coryell was born Lorenz Albert Van DeLinder III on April 2, 1943 in Galveston, Texas. His biological father was a musician of German descent “who chased a lot of women”, but Larry never knew him as he was raised by his mother and stepfather Gene Coryell. His interest in music started when his mother encouraged him to learn the piano at age 4. At age 14 he became more interested in guitar and studied the works of Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, and Johnny Smith. When he was 16 he ran off to join a rock band. The self-labeled “black sheep of the family,” he also “knocked up” his girlfriend. “It was traumatic to me.” Her parents sent the girl away, and she married someone else after giving birth to a daughter. (“I’ve never seen the kid,”) To cope with his emotions, Coryell plunged into practice sessions, copying a Wes Montgomery record until he knew every difficult lick by heart. He still regards that bit of discipline as a “minor catalyst” in his career. Bands he joined in those early days were the Jailers, the Rumblers, the Royals, and the Flames. He also played with the Checkers from nearby Yakima, Washington. He then moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington in an attempt to become a journalist. While there he played in a number of popular Northwest bands, including the Dynamics, while living in Seattle. But in 1965 the changing culture of the sixties in the US made him move to the mecca of folk rock and jazz guitar, New York City, where he first attended Mannes School of Music to study classical guitar.
Most established jazz musicians regarded rock with suspicion if not hostility when Coryell arrived in New York from Washington State in 1965. But a younger cohort, steeped in the Beatles as well as bebop, was beginning to explore an approach that bridged the stylistic gap. Coryell, who had grown up listening to a wide range of music, became one of the leaders of that cohort.
Before the year was out, he attracted much attention jamming in Greenwich Village and replaced Gabor Szabo in Chico Hamilton’s band. In 1966, he made a startling recorded debut on Hamilton’s The Dealer album, where his blues and rock ideas came to the fore, and that year he also played and recorded an album with a proto-jazz-rock band, the Free Spirits, a short-lived rock band that mixed radio-friendly melodies with adventurous stretches of instrumental improvisation. Most of the group’s members — including the drummer Bob Moses, who would also join the Burton quartet, and the saxophonist Jim Pepper — had jazz backgrounds.
He further attracted international attention in 1967 with the vibraphonist Gary Burton’s quartet, which some music historians call the first jazz-rock band. But he had been experimenting with what would soon come to be called fusion even before then.
Coryell counted Chuck Berry and the country guitarist Chet Atkins among his early inspirations. He also came under the spell of jazz at a young age, teaching himself to play along with records by Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and other masters.
His round, ringing tone and his propensity for bending notes placed him outside the jazz guitar mainstream, but he was never all that concerned with labels. “If music has something to say to you, whether it’s jazz, country-and-western, Indian music or Asian folk music, go ahead and use it,” Coryell told an interviewer in 1968. Such a sentiment may seem commonplace today, but it was rare in the mid-1960s, before Miles Davis and other older jazz musicians embraced a similarly eclectic philosophy, as Mr. Coryell himself did throughout his career. Over the years he worked with rock musicians like Jack Bruce and jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins (he also recorded with Davis, although the material from that session remains officially unreleased), as well as with musicians from India, Brazil and elsewhere.
Coryell’s name spread even further when he was one of the most prominent solo voices on Herbie Mann’s popular Memphis Underground album (recorded in 1968). He, Mandel, and Steve Marcus formed a group called Foreplay in 1969 (no relation to the later Fourplay), and by 1973 this became the core of the jazz-rock band Eleventh House, which after a promising start ran aground with a string of albums of variable quality.
Coryell began performing and recording as a leader in 1968, with a clear idea of what he wanted in a band. “One side of my personality likes the soft stuff, the jazz,” he told The New York Times in 1968. “The other side likes to play hard things, rock, with big amps. I have to get musicians who can go both ways.”
On his album “Spaces” (1970), considered a high-water mark of the fusion movement, he was accompanied by leading exemplars of the genre, most notably his fellow guitarist John McLaughlin, with whom he would work off and on throughout his career.
The loud side of Coryell’s personality took center stage in 1972 when he formed the Eleventh House, a seminal fusion band that emphasized complex, thunderous compositions and flashy, rapid-fire solos. (The band’s powerhouse drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, went on to become a star in his own right. He died in December 2016.) After the Eleventh House disbanded in 1975, Coryell turned off the amps for a while to focus on acoustic guitar and a prolific series of duo and trio sessions with the likes of Philip Catherine, Emily Remler, John Scofield, Joe Beck, Steve Khan, and John McLaughlin.
By the late 1970s he was again playing an electric instrument, but this time in a straight-ahead jazz context. He released an album credited with Mouzon and an album with the Brecker Brothers that was recorded direct-to-disc, a recording method revived for a time. He made several acoustic duet albums, two with Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. Their album Twin House (1977), which contained the song “Miss Julie”, drew favorable reviews. In 1979, Coryell formed The Guitar Trio with fusion guitarist John McLaughlin and flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía. The group toured Europe and released a video recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in London entitled Meeting of the Spirits. In early 1980, Coryell’s drug addiction led to him being replaced by Al Di Meola. Coryell recorded the album Together with (and was briefly romantically involved with female jazz guitar virtuoso Emily Remler before her untimely death at 32 from a heroin overdose while on tour in Australia.
Reviewing a 1985 performance for The Times, Jon Pareles noted that Larry Coryell had moved from the “machine-gun scales and riffs” of his early years to “the subtler pleasures of jazz. “The slower Larry Coryell plays his guitar,” Mr. Pareles wrote, “the better he gets.” Coryell toggled between jazz and jazz-rock, electric and acoustic for the rest of his career.
In the mid-’80s, Coryell toured once again with McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía, and in 1986 participated in a five-way guitar session with his old idol Farlow, Scofield, Larry Carlton, and John Abercrombie for the Jazzvisions series. In the years that followed, Coryell also recorded with Stéphane Grappelli, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and Kenny Barron, and taped Brazilian music with Dori Caymmi for CTI, mainstream jazz for Muse, solo guitar for Shanachie and Acoustic Music, and (for Nippon Phonogram in Japan) an album of classical transcriptions of music by Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Coryell’s career in the 90s and the early 21st century stayed just as active. The year 2004 saw the release of Tricycles, an excellent trio date with drummer Paul Wertico and bassist Mark Egan. Electric from 2005 found Coryell playing jazz standards and rock anthems with Lenny White on drums and Victor Bailey on electric bass. In 2006 he released the performance album Laid Back & Blues: Live at the Sky Church in Seattle, followed two years later by Impressions: The New York Sessions on Chesky.
In 2011 he joined a group of musicians closely associated with the Bay Area’s Wide Hive label for Larry Coryell with the Wide Hive Players. He then returned in 2013 with The Lift, featuring organist Chester Thompson. Two years later, he delivered his third album for Wide Hive, Heavy Feel.
In January 2017, Coryell announced he had reunited members of his ’70s fusion group Eleventh House, including trumpeter Randy Brecker, for the album Seven Secrets. The album was slated to arrive in early June 2017, with a number of U.S. summer tour dates confirmed in support of the release. However, following a pair of weekend shows at New York City’s Iridium club, Coryell died of heart failure in his hotel room on February 19, 2017. He was 73 years old.
Larry Coryell never stopped looking to expand his musical horizons. In recent years, he had completed two operas based on works by Tolstoy, and had been working on another, inspired by James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” when death arrived on his doorstep.
As one of the pioneers of jazz-rock — perhaps the quintessential pioneer in the ears of some — Larry Coryell deserves a special place in the history books. He brought what amounted to a nearly alien sensibility to jazz electric guitar playing in the 1960s, a hard-edged, cutting tone, and phrasing and note-bending that owed as much to blues, rock, and even country as it did to earlier, smoother bop influences. Yet as a true eclectic, armed with a brilliant technique, he remained comfortable in almost every style, covering almost every base from the most decibel-heavy, distortion-laden electric work to the most delicate, soothing, intricate lines on acoustic guitar. Unfortunately, a lot of his most crucial electric work from the ’60s and ’70s went missing in the digital age, tied up by the erratic reissue schemes of Vanguard, RCA, and other labels, and by jazz-rock’s myopically low level of status in certain quarters.