Jedi master, Zen warrior
A Q&A with Larry Coryell
By Geoff Gehman
“Never finish a phrase” said Miles Davis to Larry Coryell, the trumpeter dropping a nugget of wisdom on the guitarist like a Zen koan. Leave the phrase open so it leaves you open to play something bigger, bolder, better. Why tunnel through the pipeline when you can build it or, better yet, blow it up?
Inspired by Miles’ mantra, Coryell has made his entire career a sonic pilgrimage. The composing guitarist is renowned for fusing jazz to rock to classical to country to funk to psychedelic soul to what-have-you hybrids. He’s recorded seminal albums (“Spaces,” 1974), led pivotal bands (The Eleventh Hour) and transformed classics (Ravel’s “Bolero”) into cosmic kaleidoscopes. Mix in his influential columns for Guitar Player magazine and you have a musical Jedi warrior.
Coryell plays the Mauch Chunk Opera House on Aug. 17, returning for the second time in 11 months with his fellow fusioneers, bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Lenny White, alumni respectively of Weather Report and Return to Forever. The concert continues a jam-packed half-dozen years for Coryell, who is acting half his 70 years old. During this stretch he’s published a free-spirited autobiography, toured with a reformed The Eleventh Hour and a Miles Davis tribute group, cut records with everyone from a Charles Mingus Big Band pianist to a trio of Bavarian jazz guitarists. Oh yes, he’s also written an opera inspired by “War and Peace.”
In a conversation from his home in Orlando, Coryell discussed paying tribute to his heroes Wes Montgomery and Martin Luther King Jr. and recovering from ailments with the help of a cat named Mozart.
Q: What was the first tune you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat?
A: The first song I really liked was probably [Hugo Alfven’s] “Swedish Rhapsody [No. 1].” The first jazz tune that killed me was Wes Montgomery’s “Green Dolphin Street.” I first heard it in a club when I was underage and I borrowed an ID from an older person. I remember they played “Black Orchid” by Cal Tjader and then they played “Green Dolphin Street.” The thumbnail on Wes’ right hand was glittering like silver. I had the impression that he put fingernail polish on it; he didn’t.
Two of my favorite guitar players when I was coming of age—and I know I’m going to leave out hugely influential guys like Kenny Burrell and Charlie Christian—were Wes and Jimi Hendrix. Wes had the thumb thing and then Jimi had the left-hand thing. But both had a very different approach to music. They were both saying: Okay, this is the way I hear music, this is the way I think it should be. Both of those cats were so important; both of them were such marvelous innovators, all the way. And they both died way too young.
Q: Why did you decide to write an opera based on “War and Peace”?
A: Because a very dear mentor of mine told all of us, four or five years ago, if you want to impress anyone, tell them you’re reading Tolstoy. He was joking and I took him seriously. I said to myself: Let me see if I can write a piece of music about this scene and that scene. Before you know it, I had written scenes for an opera.
My mentor is Daisaku Ikeda, leader of a Buddhist group I joined at the encouragement of [keyboardist] Herbie Hancock, [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter and [drummer] Tony Williams. I’ve always had musical mentors, good people like [vibraphonist] Gary Burton, [flutist] Herbie Mann, Miles Davis. All these people made me think differently about music; all of them gave me new perspectives. In jazz you want to stay in that pipeline of fresh ideas from people who are better than you, or are at least doing the same things in your field. Miles always told me: “Never finish a phrase.” He was basically telling me: You need to stimulate your energy to go beyond.
You know, I’ve been working for over a year in band called Miles Smiles with [trumpeter] Wallace Roney, who had unbelievable experiences with Miles and Herbie Hancock, as well as a world of perspective. We listen to Miles’ classic takes on music and we like to talk about what set him apart from his contemporaries, most of whom went on to become iconic musicians. Miles definitely beat a different drum; he definitely didn’t want to play regular.
Q: Why do you like working with Victor Bailey and Lenny White? Victor told me last year that you and Lenny allow him to play more naturally, to let him be him.
A: It’s the same deal for me. If it were billed as Larry Coryell’s trio, if I were the band leader, I’m not going to tell you what to play; I only want you to do what you can do best. I have no business telling anybody on the level of Lenny White or Victor Bailey what to play. Occasionally, if Lenny wants to know how many bars there are in this particular passage, or when to make a key change at this juncture, then I’ll be glad to tell him. Mostly I want what he brings to the table—uncensored, unfiltered, unfettered. Because he’s played with everybody and if you let him just do his thing, somewhere along the way the influences of Miles Davis or Freddie Hubbard or Wayne Shorter or Stanley Clarke are going to come out.
Q: Victor told me he would like to show off more of his strengths, including his singing. So why haven’t you sung on a record since “Lady Coryell” in 1969?
A: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know [laughs]. I have no answer for that. Actually, I did sing on a DVD I did in Los Angeles about five years ago. I think [I don’t sing] because I’m so focused on my instrument. But who knows? Maybe I’ll sing a little for the folks up in Jim Thorpe.
You know, Miles loved Paul Robeson. I remember we were in a room once and he threatened if anyone was not able to give him a detailed biography of Robeson, including highlights of his life, they would have to leave the room and leave the house. That’s how strongly he felt. And I was so inspired that I got [Robeson’s] famous recording of “Shenandoah” and wrote an arrangement for orchestra. I’m very proud of that.
Q: In 2011 you released the CD “Montgomery,” a tribute to the civil-rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., one of your role models. How has he guided your life?
A: I went to his lecture when I was a student at the University of Washington; I was 20 and, fortunately, I had enough sense to go. It was a great speech and I was in the presence of a great man. Fast forward and I’m on tour with Gary Burton and [drummer] Roy Haynes in Southern California when we learn that Dr. King was assassinated. I’ll never forget that Roy was devastated; it destroyed him. And I made a determination to somehow right that wrong somehow down the path of my life.
I finally got a chance when [pianist] Mose Allison gave me this book by Taylor Branch, a very detailed account of Dr. King’s leadership of the civil-rights movement. I was alive during those times but I was too young to understand the impact. Another key event was when my wife dragged me, kicking and screaming, to a lecture on Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, around the time I was playing with Victor and Lenny in Washington, D.C. Sitting there where Lincoln was assassinated, listening to his great deeds, had a profound effect on me. And then we went to the bookstore and my wife had to drag me, kicking and screaming, to get out of there. All of a sudden it opened up a part of me that was empty: our heritage as Americans. There’s such a clear relationship between Lincoln and Reconstruction and the Gilded Age and that horrible, disgusting film “[The] Birth of a Nation” and then Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.”
Wes Montgomery, [trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, musicians I worshipped from my knees–all these guys had to put up with segregation and hatred. It made me appreciate their genius even more. So I studied sections of the story of the Montgomery bus boycott and I wrote music thinking of people who were playing in New York at that time. You know, what would [saxophonists] [John] Coltrane and [Charlie] Parker have been doing there? That was “Joy at the Jail.”
I don’t care if you’re white, black, from India or from Norway: everybody deserves the opportunity for a level playing field, to play fair by the rules laid down in our society. That means anything to do with the American Dream, which for me was becoming a jazz musician. Let’s say you have me and Lenny and Victor and someone wants to play with us. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. It’s very simple: Can you play or not? [Clicks his fingers] “C’mon baby, let’s hear what you got.” And jazz brings people together because it’s mostly an instrumental music. It’s about emotion, and emotion is universal.
“Government by the people for the people”: it sounded corny to me when I was in school, but now it makes sense.
Q: You’ve been prolific-plus the last half-dozen years. What’s the secret? What lock have you finally unlocked? Did Tracey, your wife and manager, play a key role?
A: When we moved into this town home six years ago, I wasn’t working that much and I was going through a lot of obstacles. So she played only Mozart and maybe a little Beethoven for literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And that had a lot to do with not only my recovery, but my productivity. I also started reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Steinbeck; they raised my consciousness a bit. Tracey just allowed me a place to go where I needed to go, to stimulate my juices.
Q: Can you tell me a composition of yours with a strange afterlife, a career you could never have mapped?
A: There was a thing from the “At the Village Gate” album in 1971 with [bassist] Mervin Bronson and [drummer] Harry Wilkinson. I was walking up the stairs for the first set and this idea came to me and we played it right there. It was called “The Opening” and I said to myself: “Oh, that’s a throwaway.”
Well, about 30 years later it was covered by a pop group in London called Cornershop. They changed it around and called it “Candy Man.” And we got $100,000. We split it up and I was left with probably one of the biggest paydays of my life.
In other words, keep the faith, baby. Never allow that negativity to creep in.
Q: So Larry, if you had to do it all over again, would you pose with your first wife as a kind of hippie Adam and Eve on the cover of your 1969 album “Coryell”? And who were those children you and Julie posed with anyway?
A: They were my doctor’s kids. Of course I would. I mean, we weren’t naked; we were wearing bathing suits and stuff. It was reminiscent of the John and Yoko thing [i.e., posing nude on the cover of the 1968 album “Two Virgins”], although we didn’t want to be radical. We were just saying: Look, it’s a beautiful, hot summer day; let’s celebrate. And Julie is very pregnant with Murali [the Coryells’ guitarist son], who is finally going to India in November, 44 years after getting his Indian name. I think that’s really cool.
Larry Coryell: The Scoop
(1) In high school he set records as a pole vaulter.
(2) From 1977 to 1989 he wrote a column for Guitar Player magazine
(3) In 1978 he recorded an unnamed, unreleased song produced by Miles Davis, who played synthesizer on the track instead of his customary trumpet.
(4) He’s said that his recovery from alcohol and drug abuse began with the backstage chant of a Buddhist mantra by his musical friends John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.
(5) In 2000 he released a record, “The Coryells,” made with his guitarist sons Julian and Murali; the latter has played with guitarist Joe Louis Walker, who is booked to perform Aug. 9 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House.
(6) He made the chapter titles in his 2007 autobiography “Improvising: My Life in Music” fun and funky to honor a 2003 “symphonic” novel with a 20-word-plus title by Ed Vega, the late stepfather of singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, who performed last year at Mauch Chunk. “It was the best way to flatter him for a beautiful story about jazz, Vietnam and New York,” says Coryell. “His descriptions of Puerto Rican picnics in parks in Brooklyn are just wonderful. I like writers who are very good at emotional descriptions: Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. As a musician I feel a strong kinship.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call. He thinks that Larry Coryell’s solo acoustic-guitar version of “Bolero” is worth dancing a bolero. He can be reached at email@example.com.