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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.

Coryell,Bailey, White at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PAQ: 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.

Coryell,Bailey, White at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PAQ: 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.”
Coryell,Bailey, White at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PAWes 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.

Coryell,Bailey, White at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PAQ: 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 geoffgehman@verizon.net.

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Find tickets to this show here.

By Geoff Gehman

Bassists aren’t supposed to wreck the joint. Yet that’s exactly what Victor Bailey did to the Mauch Chunk Opera House during his 2009 gig. He rocked, bopped and generally tore up the psychedelic shack. He did things to the bass that his guitarist, drummer and saxophonist did to their instruments; instead of being a gatekeeper for time and tone, he made and broke gates. He even brought down the house by suggesting that Ben & Jerry’s should introduce a new ice cream: Mauch Chunk.

Victor Bailey at the Mauch Chunk Opera HouseBailey will return with his chunk of funk to the Opera House on Sept. 8, this time as co-leader of an all-star band with more than 31 flavors. The former Weather Report bassist will perform a one-off show with Larry Coryell, the fabled fusion guitarist, and Lenny White, the renowned drummer of Return to Forever, the fabled fusioneers. Expect jazzed-up rock classics, rocked-up jazz standards and hemi-powered originals, all delivered with head-spinning dexterity.

During a recent phone interview from his home in Newark, Bailey discussed teachers (Morris Bailey Jr., his composer-saxophonist father), mentors (keyboardist-composer Joe Zawinul, Weather Report’s top dog) and bosses (Madonna). Famous enough to have a bass named after him, the 52-year-old Philadelphia native is not quite famous enough to have a sweetheart record deal or a namesake ice cream.

Q: Why do you like playing with Larry and Lenny besides the fact that you’re all killer cats who have performed all over the map?

A: I get to play the bass the way I play the bass. In other bands I’m playing other people’s bass lines, other people’s grooves. I’m there to be “the bass player,” to make other people feel good. With Lenny and Larry, there are no restrictions. I may play a supporting role on their tunes, but for the most part everyone has input. We’re all there to express ourselves: that’s what makes it a standout group. You get to hear, and see, the real Victor Bailey.

Victor Bailey at the Mauch Chunk Opera HouseWe have a special chemistry. It’s been there right from the start, when musicians couldn’t get into the country for one of Larry’s records, and Larry called Lenny with like two days’ notice, and Lenny said to Larry: “Why don’t you call Victor?” And we got together and actually did the record [“Electric,” Chesky Records 2005] on the spot with no rehearsal. We still don’t need to rehearse to just take the stage and create fire

Q: Do you, Lenny and Larry have any special roles, any distinct divisions of power? For example, who decided that you should record Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and Thelonius Monk’s “Misterioso”?

A: Well, we choose a category for each song. And then we throw a bunch of titles and ideas out there and usually one sticks. We’ll say, “Okay, let’s pick rock,” and we’ll pick a Hendrix tune. Or we’ll mention every Monk tune we know. We chose “Misterioso” mainly because Lenny and I didn’t want to do “’Round Midnight” or “Straight No Chaser” or any of the other Monk tunes that have been done a million times.

Q: It’s been six years since the release of “Traffic,” CBW’s second and last record. Do you plan to cut a third CD?

Coryell, Bailey and White at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PAA: We’d love to make a record but it’s tough. A lot of major labels don’t have a jazz division anymore. A lot of smaller labels want you to pay them to record. Our names have enough value that we can work, but the budgets and the distribution deals are so up in the air that it’s really not worth recording. The Internet I guess is the way to go, so maybe we’ll release the next record on iTunes. But we’re not exactly sure about the when and how.

Q: When you hit 50 you decided that you were going to showcase all your skills, to put more of you out there. You founded the group VBop so you could swing with standards. Do you still want to cut a record of you singing R&B?

A: It’s the same dilemma as with CBW: How get you get it recorded? Where do you get it recorded? How do you get the money to get it recorded? I’m not sure people would flock to hear a 50-year-old singing R&B who doesn’t have a phenomenal voice. It’s difficult trying to figure out where I fit in. I don’t rap, I don’t dance, and I don’t sing that much. It’s a shame, because I probably have enough music for 10 records.

Coryell, Bailey and White at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PAQ: As a kid you were always quizzing your father about music. You’d ask him to identify a note bassist Ray Brown played, and he’d tell you “That’s a flat 9.” What’s the best musical advice your dad gave you?

A: His thing was: Know how to read music. Know theory. Know your instrument. Know your stuff. He always said that the guys who had it together had the potential to become working musicians.

My father had two bass players he really liked. One guy was more of a natural musician who didn’t really know theory or the name of the notes. The other guy was more of a technician; he could read anything and play different styles. My dad would tell me: “Victor, I have to cut five tracks today and if I use this [more natural] guy I’ll be waiting all day. But if I use the other guy [the technician] I could get my record cut.” So the best advice he gave me was: Get the job done, no matter what the circumstances.

Q: You consider Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul a mentor. What’s one of the essential lessons he taught you?

A: Joe taught me to really focus on the quality of the music. I’ll never forget what he told me one of the first times I met him. He said: “One day you’re gonna be a band leader and you’ll have to make sure the music is so together that you can do a show and nobody will play a solo and you’ll knock people dead because the quality of the music is that good.”

Coryell, Bailey and White at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PAI remember Joe and Wayne [Shorter, Weather Report’s co-founding saxophonist-composer] would rehearse for six months, and after six months they’d still be working on the smallest details. The phrasing of the melody. The harmony. When the drums should be louder. When the bass should be louder. The volume of the bass.

All the great people have that talent: Charlie Parker. John Coltrane. Herbie Hancock. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. Freddie Hubbard. Miles Davis. So many people play their behinds off and you can’t name one song they did. Whereas you can name me every Miles record and I’ll tell you what songs are on there. Not only the songs, but the arrangements, too.

Q: You spent nine years in Madonna’s band. What was the attraction?

A: It was just a fantastic job. She put on an entertainment spectacle. Just to be there, at the back of the stage, watching the spectacle unfold, was phenomenal. It was like going to Cirque du Soleil.

The job also paid a whole lot of money. I was able to save for retirement, buy a house, do some nice things for my parents. And if anyone thinks I sold out, I’ll just pick up a bass and shut them up fast.

Q: Do you have a dream project? Is there anything you want to do with the sort of passion you had when you were 16 and vowed you’d be the next bassist in Weather Report?

A: I’d love to have a really big record and expand my audience, particularly in the United States. But, really, there’s nothing I haven’t done that I haven’t wanted to do, other than becoming a bazillionaire.

Victor Bailey: The Scoop

His father, Morris Bailey Jr., wrote R&B/soul songs recorded by Patti LaBelle, Nina Simone and the Stylistics

He joined Weather Report when he was 19, replacing Jaco Pastorius

He honors Pastorious in his composition “Did You Know Jaco?” and another bass hero, Larry Graham, in his composition “Graham Cracker”

He first played with Madonna in a pickup band for the entertainer’s 1982 appearance on “Saturday Night Live”

He’s described his live lessons on Skype as “more like bass player hang”

Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. First favorite song: the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing.” First band he swore he discovered: Mott the Hoople. His idea of a wonderful world: anything Louis Armstrong sings. Email: geoffgehman@verizon.net.

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It doesn’t get much better than this, especially if you follow the fusion of rock and jazz.

Three iconic musicians of the genre, guitarist Larry Coryell, bassist Victor Bailey (read here for a fascinating Q&A with Bailey, courtesy of Geoff Gehman), and drummer Lenny White play Jim Thorpe’s Mauch Chunk Opera House on Saturday, September 8, for a blistering performance by one of the world’s greatest electric power trios.

Larry Coryell at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PA

Larry Coryell

It will feature CBW original tracks, along with covers of Led Zeppelin’s (“Black Dog”), Miles Davis’ classic “So What”, and Booker T. Jones’ “Born Under A Bad Sign”, as well as a James Brown hit (“Sex Machine”), a Wayne Shorter tune (“Footprints”).

“We tried to straddle the lines between ‘jazz’, ‘rock’, ‘funk’ and ‘fusion’ and whatever other names people want to put on the music,” comments Bailey, a New York City resident. Which pretty much sums up fusion itself – sort of a synthesis of power, amazing musical dexterity and technique, and nuance.

Since he began honing his skills on the guitar in New York City in 1965, Larry Coryell has recorded more than 70 albums as a bandleader, soloist and feature accompanist.  Musician magazine named him to its list of 100 greatest guitarists alive today, and after releasing more than 60 albums as a leader and playing on dozens more as a sideman in the last 40 years, Larry Coryell’s definitely earned that honor.

Lenny White at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PA

Lenny White

Lenny White is best-known for his years with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Al DiMeola in Return To Forever, plus his stellar contribution to Miles Davis’s epochal Bitches Brew. He was soon working with some of the who’s who of jazz including Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Gato Barbieri, Gil Evans, Stanley Clarke and Stan Getz. As a member of Return To Forever during 1973-76, White gained a strong reputation as one of the top fusion drummers, but he was always versatile enough to play in many settings.

Victor Bailey at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe PA

Victor Bailey

Victor Bailey took over the bassist spot from Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report in one of the more difficult assignments imaginable. Always in demand, he has toured or recorded with diverse artists such as Michael Brecker, LL Cool J, David Gilmore, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, and Sting.

Check out a Youtube video here of Bailey before his 2009 appearance at the Opera House.

Tickets are available online at MauchChunkOperaHouse.com, and at SoundCheck Records in downtown Jim Thorpe, either by visiting or calling them at 570-325-0249. You may also call the Opera House box office at 570-325-0249.

These cats sound like they’ve been playing together for decades. Nuance, impression, and subtle suggestion are all incorporated in the mix for a wonderful melodic approach to modern creative jazz”  – Thom Jurek, All Music Guide

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