On 8th November 2016, the day after America voted to make Donald Trump the next president of the US, guitar legend Larry Coryell – who has died of heart failure – told Downbeat magazine’s Bill Milkowski: ‘Now that Trump is in, we’re going to make good on our promise to move to either Germany or Ireland. This election will take us back to the Dark Ages and people will think it’s OK to be prejudiced again. Because I’m a Buddhist, I’m going to chant about it and try to turn poison into medicine and just get deeper and deeper into my music…’
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. But Larry was one of the most important jazz guitarists and part of a select group of players equally heralded on both the acoustic and electric guitar. His work on Chico Hamilton’s The Dealer and Gary Burton’s Duster introduced an extraordinary talent, long before it was fashionable to play jazz with a distorted sound and ‘rock’ attitude.
During this period, he also worked with Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin on the Spaces album. Though his ’70s fusion band Eleventh House never attained the fame or critical acclaim of Weather Report, HeadHunters, The Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return To Forever, it featured some of the most fiery guitar playing of the era, powered along by Alphonse Mouzon and Gerry Brown’s drumming.
Coryell then contributed some ear-bending solos to Charles Mingus’s Three Or Four Shades Of Blues in 1977 and was summoned by Miles Davis a year later, forming a short-lived band and recording a few tracks which are yet to see the light of day.
1979 saw Coryell work with sax legend Sonny Rollins on the Don’t Ask album. He then joined John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia for the fascinating ‘Meeting Of The Spirits’ European tour and famous Royal Albert Hall concert. His style and somewhat manic approach were less nuanced than the other two guitar masters, but watching the concert back now his solos always contain weirdly memorable, even catchy melodies.
Throughout the 1970s, he struggled with alcohol dependency, but re-emerged in the early ’80s as a clean, sober follower of Buddhism. His subsequent acoustic period featured acclaimed solo guitar versions of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring’ and Ravel’s ‘Bolero’.
In the 1990s, he toured with Wayne Shorter and appeared at the groundbreaking Guitar Legends concert in Sevilla, Spain.
Later in the decade, he dabbled in smooth jazz and also reignited the Spaces project, this time with Cobham, Richard Bona and Bireli Lagrene, and also reformed Eleventh House. I saw Larry at the Jazz Cafe in 2007 with Victor Bailey on bass and Lenny White on drums, a raw but unique trio which also produced two well-received studio albums. As usual, his playing was risky, surprising and exciting.
He lived in Orlando, Florida, but died in New York just before performing at Iridium in Midtown Manhattan. He is survived by his wife, Tracey; two daughters, Allegra Coryell and Annie White; two sons, Murali and Julian; and six grandchildren.
Larry Coryell, born 2nd April, 1943 – died 19th February 2017