Larry Coryell earned his reputation as a master of psychedelic jazz guitar with a series of groundbreaking experimental LPs in the late '60s. But Coryell's skills extend far beyond the sphere of the avant-garde; he's equally comfortable riffing on traditional jazz standards and well-versed in high-profile collaborations. He's traded licks with Jimi Hendrix and recorded with Charles Mingus.
Indy will experience the full range of Coryell's guitar virtuosity when he visits the Jazz Kitchen on June 14.
NUVO: In your autobiography, you said Wes Montgomery was your hero. What did his work mean to you?
Larry Coryell: Wes meant everything to me. He's one of the high priests of jazz guitar. He was one of a kind and now he's the most imitated guitarist in the history of jazz.
NUVO: Did you get to see him play?
Coryell: Absolutely, it was incredible. I was underage at the time and I borrowed an ID to get in. I couldn't get over his thumb. He didn't play with a pick, he used his right thumb. He was happy to be there and he expressed tremendous joy on the bandstand. He laughed a lot.
The name of the first album by Wes that I bought was The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery and I agree with that adjective. Interestingly enough, when I got a chance to talk to him about that record he told me he didn't like it. He said, "You should've heard me a few years ago when I played my steady gig in Indy at the Missile Room."
Later, I used to go watch him in New York at the Half Note in 1966. He did some incredible shows there that were recorded and bootlegged. It's some of the best work he ever did. He was being influenced by the New York scene and he started playing more of a tour-de-force thing as opposed to the friendly confines of a Montgomery Brothers type context. Sometimes, he'd be the only soloist. He'd play the head, take a long solo, and then ride it out - and nobody would complain. (Laughs)
NUVO: One of your first major gigs was recording with Chico Hamilton on The Dealer in 1966. You replaced guitarist Gábor Szabó in Hamilton's band. Like you, Szabó frequently mixed rock and jazz with Eastern-inspired sounds. Was Szabó an influence on your playing?
Coryell: He was my mentor. I saw him around the same time I saw Wes. I befriended him and we hung out, smoked a little grass. He told me his thoughts about music and I soaked them up like a sponge. I remember the most important thing he told me was, "The music comes first, the instrument comes second."
We both ended up moving to New York and I was supposed to do a record date with him. I had a band called The Free Spirits that was playing folk rock mixed with jazz and he wanted to record with us. I don't remember how this happened but we missed the date. How we could miss our first recording date I can not tell you. But we were all into psychedelic drugs at the time. We might've dropped some acid.
NUVO: From L. Subramaniam to Zakir Hussain, you've played with some of India's greatest musicians. Even your earliest recorded work reflects Indian influence. What's your connection to Indian music?
Coryell: When you're a creative musician you want to be aware of what everyone else is doing. So I was aware that the Beatles admired Indian music and even before the Beatles' were connected with Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane was digging Indian music. A lot of people my age felt if Coltrane digs it there must be something to it. So we all got into to it to a greater or lesser degree.
Indian music and jazz have one very strong commonality and that's improvisation. Their rules of improv are very different than our but there is some overlapping.
NUVO: Your next release is an opera you composed based on Tolstoy's War and Peace. Is this work written in a conventional opera format?
Coryell: Yes, I'd say it's a modern conventional opera. It's not Carmen. I love Carmen but I'd say the orchestral influences are as far reaching as Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Webb to Gershwin to Tchaikovsky. Plus lot of Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel and Stravinsky. We're trying to do the premiere in one of the former Yugoslavian countries. We want it to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I.
This week's Cultural Manifesto podcast features audio clips of my interview with Larry Coryell.
1. Larry Coryell - Sunday Telephone
2. Larry Coryell interview "the importance of Wes Montgomery"
3. Wes Montgomery - Airegin
4. Larry Coryell interview "Wes live"
5. Chico Hamilton (w/ Larry Coryell) - The Dealer
6. Larry Coryell interview "Gábor Szabó was my mentor"
7. Gábor Szabó - Sophisticated Wheels
8. Larry Coryell interview "The Free Spirits"
9. The Free Spirits (w/ Larry Coryell) - I'm Gonna be Free
10. Larry Coryell interview "Indian influences"
11. Larry Coryell & L. Subramaniam - Beyond the Flames
12. Larry Coryell interview "Herbie Mann & Sonny Sharrock"
13. Sonny Sharrock - Who Does She Hope to Be
14. Larry Coryell interview "War & Peace opera"
15. Charles Mingus (w/ Larry Coryell) - Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul
16. Larry Coryell - Cover Girl
17. Larry Coryell interview "MLK, civil rights, and the Montgomery album"
18. Grant Green - Go Down Moses
19. Larry Coryell - Beautiful Love