Larry Coryell, one of the pioneers of jazz fusion, died on February 19, 2017. The obituaries on him in the press were pretty accurate. But on looking through WordPress feeds, I could find not one word about him. Perhaps his heyday was long enough ago that he has been largely forgotten. So allow me to do my small part in rectifying this situation.
The headline in the New York Times obituary said this: “Larry Coryell, Guitarist of Fusion Before It Had a Name, Dies at 73.” In a previous post, I wrote about fusion, that mix of rock and jazz that was very popular in the late ’60’s and into the ’70’s.
A Texas-bred guitarist, Coryell (Cor-ee-ELL) was in rock bands in his teens, playing the usual fare of Chuck Berry, Beatles, etc. But he was also heavily influenced by jazz guitarists such as Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery. “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,” he said.
Coryell formed a band in 1965 called The Free Spirits which has been called the first jazz-rock band. I’ve listened to some of their stuff online and I’m not really hearing it. I think they are only considered this because the band is made up of jazz musicians. But they’re clearly playing rock, not jazz. Frankly, their songs aren’t very good.
I think it was his work with vibraphonist Gary Burton that really started to bring Coryell attention. His first album with Burton, Duster, is considered one of the first fusion albums and sure sounds a hell of a lot more like jazz to me. But the stronger elements of heavily electrified guitars with a rock sound were still to come.
Things started getting interesting in 1970 when Coryell released the album Spaces. This album features some of the giants of jazz of that era, some of whom also played on Miles Davis’ seminal album, Bitches Brew. (Also released in 1970.)
In addition to Coryell, band members included John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham – later to be part of the wildly popular Mahavishnu Orchestra – along with Chick Corea from Miles Davis‘ band and bassist Miroslav Vitous who would go on to co-found Weather Report.
But I think what really put Coryell over the top and made him a force back in the early ’70’s was a band he fronted called The Eleventh House. Their debut album was released in 1974.
And for those of you who weren’t there, this was what the post-60’s generation was spending a lot of time listening to. (Along with Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Miles Davis, Stanley Jordan, Al di Meola.) As I think I noted before, my buddy Steve calls fusion “rock ‘n roll to the max.”
A couple of other well-known names that came out of Eleventh House were trumpeter Randy Brecker and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Randy and his brother Michael formed the Brecker Brothers and were ubiquitous in the music scene for many years. Michael passed away a few years ago and sadly, Mouzon died on Christmas Day last year.
Larry Coryell, born with the great name of Lorenz Albert Van DeLinder III, never really afterwards reached the peaks of popularity that he achieved in the early ’70’s. In fact he admitted that it was his chameleon-like nature of never really settling in on a genre along with playing totally non-commercial music that likely accounted for that.
But you know what? I respect a musician who says, the hell with it, I’m playing whatever I want to play and I’ll live whatever lifestyle that provides. Coryell’s last gig was at the esteemed Iridium club in New York. (I saw Les Paul play there once.)
Fusion itself has never again had the type of mass popularity it once did. But it’s still very much out there. You just have to know where to look.