Thursday, February 23, 2017

Larry Coryell: Ruminations

Iridium Jazz Club 2/17/17
Larry Coryell, the pioneering jazz/fusion guitarist, passed away on Sunday.

I'm assuming that anyone who would be reading this knows that already, so I don't have to go into the details.

I do get tired of my blog looking like one long series of obituaries, an effect that was particularly pronounced in 2016, but when artists who were so prominent in my mind and often were so pivotal in my aesthetic development pass on, I am simply forced to try to process my thoughts the only way I know how: To sit down, put on a record, and try to describe what I loved about their work, how they influenced me, and how grateful I was to have experienced their artistry in a live setting (or regretful If I didn't). Often, these musings are more for my benefit than anyone else.

As I sit here writing, I am listening to my old LP of Larry's solo guitar arrangement of Ravel's "Boléro," and thinking about the last time I heard that piece. It wasn't that long ago. In fact, it was last Friday, February the 17th when he was performing at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City.

He was playing a set with his trio which included the rhythm section of drummer Steve Johns and the young upright bass prodigy Daryl Johns. The band wound their way through a set including old standards and Larry's own compositions, with the father-son rhythm section locking into a psychically linked groove with Coryell weaving his own lines within.

Coryell, always generous in sharing the spotlight and showcasing his fellow musicians, gave Daryl ample space to solo. Playing with a steely intensity, the young musician showed the audience why he has generated such a buzz in recent years. He was equally generous in his praise of the drummer, complimenting him on his sophisticated economy of style. "When the drummer is so unobtrusive, it shows what a great drummer he is."

And then he played "Boléro."

Iridium Jazz Club 2/17/17
Playing acoustically on his own, he freely explored ideas and textures, improvising a beginning to the piece based on mood and atmosphere before laying down Ravel's melody. Though he had been playing the piece for decades, it felt like he was exploring it for the first time, toying with the familiar melody, leaping off from it, and touching base again just before he went too far. Even when he started to sing along with his playing (I never thought that Larry's singing was his strong suit) his delight in rediscovering the piece and seeking out sounds in the moment was infectious. The performance was thrilling and made my hair stand up on end. Concluding, he received a well-deserved standing ovation.

As the band returned to the stage, Larry welcomed up saxophonist Bob Mover, with whom, he hinted, a collaborative recording was in the works. As the band tore into the last piece of the evening (I honestly don't remember what it was) Mover, in spite of his seeming frailty contributed some thrilling be-bop inflected soloing, ending the set on an energetic note.

Of course, I had no inkling as I left the club that that would be the last time I would see Larry Coryell perform. I simply assumed I would be seeing him in the summer with a reconstituted version of his old band The Eleventh House, as they toured in promotion of their new album, the yet to be released, Seven Secrets. The last I saw of him, he was looking to the future.

It's just weird to wrap my brain around it. His passing in his hotel room on Sunday doesn't fit the narrative that I had in my head. These shows at the Iridium were supposed to be the beginning of the next chapter.

By the end of last year, I was so shell-shocked by the sheer number of beloved artists that were leaving us, I think part of my subconscious felt that if we just survived 2016, we would somehow become immortal, and we would never have to bury another hero ever again.

2016 had been a rough year for Larry as well. He had seen the loss of longtime collaborators including bassist Victor Bailey, and his Eleventh House co-founder, drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Furthermore, he did not get out of the year unscathed himself. He had had severe health issues last summer after a botched sinus surgery resulted in a viral infection, leading to several cancelled shows and a long painful recovery.

But he had seemed to come through it all. He appeared to be in fine health and seemed full of new ideas, speaking about numerous new projects and collaborations. There was no hint of the turmoil of the previous year.  It still seems unreal.

Obviously, my thoughts go out to his family. I think about his wife, Tracey, and her sorrowful note regarding how he died on the road. "I'm heartbroken- you never came home." Though I never knew either of them personally, it's hard not to feel a personal sadness at such a sentiment.

But even if I never actually knew Larry, he was my guy, if you know what I mean. When I got into his music, I felt like I was joining a secret club. It's well known in jazz circles that, as time went on, Larry did not maintain the same profile as did many of his contemporaries and the musicians he inspired. Many see that as a gross injustice. Some view it as just bad luck. But in any event, Larry was not on my radar when I was first exploring jazz and jazz/fusion music. In fact, I didn't discover Larry until I had over a decade of rabid music collecting under my belt.

I remember the first album I bought. I was at a used record store in the East Village where I found a copy of Level One, the second album by The Eleventh House. I had definitely heard his name at some point, and I remembered pulling the album out, noting the presence of Mouzon, who I knew from his playing on the first Weather Report album. The guy behind the counter looked at my acquisition and commented simply: "The only word I can use to describe these guys is 'relentless.'"

That was enough for me. Listening to the album, however, I found that, while tracks like "Nyctaphobia" fit the record store guy's description perfectly, I found other words aside from "relentless." I heard pieces that were more lyrical, more funky , more wistful, more mysterious. It didn't become an instant favorite, but something made me want to find more.

As I searched out his material, I found that so much of it was difficult to find. Even now, some of his finest albums from the 70s are out of print. Of course, at the time, this was both frustrating and alluring. As a record collector, half of the fun was in the hunt, and scouring record stores throughout the city and beyond yielded little thrills whenever I would find clean copies of albums like The Restful Mind or Standing Ovation.

Furthermore, as I listened to his early work as a sideman, playing with the likes of Chico Hamilton, Gary Burton, and Herbie Mann, I started to really see what set him apart from guitarists like John McLaughlin and Al DiMiola, players of consummate skill who arrived on the scene slightly later, essentially walking through the door that Larry broke open. I began to notice that Larry's playing was the intersection between the past, present, and the future. More so than the guitarists who followed, I could hear the rhythm and blues influence, while at the same time hearing the echoes of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Barney Kessel .

Coryell in 1982
After he released two albums under his own name which melded rock, blues, jazz, and even country, he released Spaces, an album on which he brought in musicians John McLaughlin, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Miroslav Vitouš, and drummer Billy Cobham; All musicians who would change and define what jazz would be over the next decade. Even though I wasn't even alive at its time of release, listening to that album I can hear how he was straddling tradition and a thrillingly wide-open future. Along with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and The Tony Williams Lifetime's Emergency, that album was a pivotal point in the development of what would later be dubbed fusion, and more people should know it.

(Again, I know that I am probably preaching to the choir, and that most of people reading this are going through the same period of remembrance and contemplation. If you are reading, I thank you for indulging me.)

But beyond that, I just always found that his playing had an edge to it that I didn't find elsewhere. Whether that edge was anger, or vulnerability, or whether it was a burst of some other unforeseen emotion, there was simply this other intangible quality. Nobody played like he did. He wasn't simply about virtuosic pyrotechnics, there was a connectedness, and a spontaneous expression of an agile musical imagination. He didn't want to show what he could do. He wanted to see what could be done.

I think some Larry fanatics revel a little in his relative obscurity. It may be a bit (or a lot) pretentious, but there is some delight in being in the know about something that other people aren't. There have been times when I have been hanging with friends at my apartment, and after a few drinks I'll say: "Hey, do you want to hear something that will blow your mind?" and play them a track like "After Later" from the Live at The Village Gate album, or "Ruminations" from Offering. And I can think of a number of conversations that I have had with musicians who respected my opinions just a little bit more after they found out that I was a full-fledged member of the Larry club. If you were into Larry, you were definitely hip.

So, yeah. He was my guy.

I regret never meeting him. Obviously I wanted to. I'd seen him hanging around venues before or after shows, but I didn't want to intrude. When I found out that he would be playing at The Iridium, I planned to reach out and ask if I could get a few minutes for a casual interview, but I figured it was too short notice. Also, I'll admit it, I chickened out. Plus, I didn't know what to ask.

There were the obvious questions about new projects and whatnot, but there were other questions in
my mind that I wouldn't dare ask. I wanted to know how he was feeling after his health scare last year. I wanted to know how he felt about touring with an Eleventh House without Alphonse Mouzon kicking it behind him. I wanted to know his thoughts on growing older as an artist, what he felt like he's learned and what he thinks he might have lost. I wanted to ask if he felt as underappreciated as I believed he was. Maybe I should have just asked the easy questions and then thanked him. Maybe he wouldn't have been available anyway.

I definitely would not have simply come out and told him to his face that I thought he was one of the most daring guitarists I had ever heard, how much I admired his capacity for invention and reinvention, how amazed I was with his ability to take risks, how exploring his catalog yielded endless delights, and that the hunt to track down those old LPs proved to be such a great source of fun and pride, and that seeing him perform live was enthralling. Maybe I would have said the last one.

But I'll always have "Boléro."

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