Q&A with legendary guitarist Larry Coryell, one of the pioneers of jazz/fusion -- deserves a special place in music

"Jazz is an African-based music. You don't have to be African to play it but you must understand the "African" aspects of the music in order to play it the right way. What is great is that Jazz is America's only original art form."

Larry Coryell: The Jazz Vision of Iris

As one of the pioneers of jazz-rock -- perhaps the pioneer in the ears of some -- Larry Coryell deserves a special place in the history books. He brought what amounted to a nearly alien sensibility to jazz electric guitar playing in the 1960s, a hard-edged, cutting tone, phrasing and note-bending that owed as much to blues, rock and even country as it did to earlier, smoother bop influences. Yet as a true eclectic, armed with a brilliant technique, he is comfortable in almost every style, covering almost every base from the most decibel-heavy, distortion-laden electric work to the most delicate, soothing, intricate lines on acoustic guitar. Unfortunately, a lot of his most crucial electric work from the '60s and '70s is missing on CD, tied up by the erratic reissue schemes of Vanguard, RCA and other labels, and by jazz-rock's myopically low level of status in the CD era (although that mindset is slowly changing).

Born in Galveston, Texas on April 2, 1943 Coryell grew up in the Seattle, Washington area where his mother introduced him to the piano at the tender age of 4. He switched to guitar and played rock music while in his teens. He didn't consider himself good enough to pursue a music career and studied journalism at The University of Washington while simultaneously taking private guitar lessons. By 1965 he had relocated to New York City and began taking classical guitar lessons which would figure prominently in later stages of his career. Although citing Chet Atkins and Chuck Berry as early influences he also took cues from jazzmen such as John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery. He was also inspired by the popular music of the day by the Beatles, The Byrds and Dylan and worked diligently to meld both rock and jazz stylings into his technique. His career, however, began in era of guitar rock, where he was able to rise for a time with legends such as Hendrix, Santana, and Clapton. As this era came to a close, his musical expression took him on a diverse journey, and though he did not receive the level of commercial fame the aformentioned musicians had, he was still able to make his mark in music by way of the jazz & fusion world. His music continues to influence musicians and fans internationally and will continue to do so for a very long time. Larry Coryell, who is referred to as the Godfather of Jazz/Fusion released a brilliant new album, "Barefoot Man: Sanpaku" (2016), on Cleopatra Records.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz, Rock and Blues music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Good question--jazz rock and blues are now popular all over the world; I recall being in Greece once (Athens) on a day off and I heard a great blues band--all Greek, great players--it was beautiful. When so many different people and cultures appreciate the same artistic thing that is a first step towards reducing jealousy and hatred in the world.

How do you describe Barefoot Man: Sanpaku sound and songbook? What characterize Coryell’s music philosophy?

I describe "Barefoot Man: Sanpaku" as a jazz record. Of course it has fusion elements but I have been mixing styles in various ways many times during my career. What's important is: does it sound good? That's the bottom line. My musical philosophy has always had the jazz foundation as its base. Bringing in different elements to support the jazz is my way of individualizing the music--speaking with my own voice.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I have met many artists who have mentored me, who have helped me with my concept and with my playing. Gabor Szabo said to me early on: "the music comes first, the instrument second." I try not to forget that. Monk Montgomery told me, the most fundamental thing is to play with good "time" and to play in tune--very important. With improvising, Miles told me to "never finish a phrase". Wes told me he thinks about the next note he is going to play one millionth of a second before he plays it.

Two of the best human beings I worked for were Chico Hamilton and Herbie Mann--great band leaders who understood humanity as well as music.

"The Psychedelic Sixties--well, I think it was a time when a new generation was emerging to lead society. We wanted to make an original impression by creating new things--new ideas, new societies, and, of course, new music."

What do you miss most nowadays from the Jazz of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Of course I miss Tony Williams, Mike Brecker, Dizzy, Cedar Walton, Miles--all of those great players I heard during my life. However, new players have stepped forward to takes their places, David Sanchez, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joey DeFrancesco and many more--jazz is in good hands. But as your question implies it is good to know the history. I see the future for good players to be very positive--they will find ways to do their business and, somehow, they will survive and even prosper as they concentrate on their musical evolution and how to bring it to the public.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Nothing really, I would change; we have to deal with what is in front of us. Conscientious musicians develop their own journeys and they struggle, but because of that struggle, ultimately they do well. Perhaps if it were possible, I would like to see musicians getting paid much more for their Youtube appearances. I think that is a problem, economically.

Are there any memories from Miles and Hendrix which you’d like to share? What touched (emotionally) you?

Miles and Hendrix--two of the greatest players ever to live on planet Earth! I am fortunate to have known both of them. Hendrix' career was very short, but in that brief time he developed a new way of improvising on the pentatonic scale, plus he was a great songwriter and a great entertainer--he could reach people with one strong, fiery note. Plus he made the musicians around him play better. So did Miles; Miles listened carefully to everyone is his various bands and he always had good suggestions. Mile really cared about the totality of jazz music--that's why his bands were so good. He hired artists for what they could do with their talent--look at Coltrane, John McLaughlin, John Scofield, Bill Evans, Herbie, Wayne--all these Miles alumni went on to great careers. That's the kind of bandleader I want to be, i.e. to be a positive, creative mentor.

I will never forget around 1968, being in Hendrix' limo in heavy, really heavy NYC traffic, listening to "Hey Jude" on the radio. Jimi took out his pencil and scribbled something on a piece of paper, and "Crosstown Traffic" was born.

Jimi was very humble with his success--he told me he was very surprised that he became so popular, so famous. My reply was: "you earned it, Jimi, with your music."

I recall Miles rehearsing a slow movement--an Adagio--with us for days and when we got to the studio to record, he told us to play something else--something rhythmic in a twelve-eight beat. I asked him: "Miles, what about the Adagio?" and Miles said: "Fuck the Adagio!" That was the greatest thing--almost the funniest thing--I ever heard!

Many people may not know it but Miles really cared about issues and about people: we were once in a room with him and he said: "If anyone here doesn't know Paul Robeson's birthday, he has to get out!" I love that memory--Miles had integrity.

"My musical philosophy has always had the jazz foundation as its base. Bringing in different elements to support the jazz is my way of individualizing the music--speaking with my own voice."

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of Psychedelic Rock researches and Jazz experiments?

The Psychedelic Sixties--well, I think it was a time when a new generation was emerging to lead society. We wanted to make an original impression by creating new things--new ideas, new societies, and, of course, new music. For me, as a jazz musician, I eventually understood that my mission was to, instead of copying my heroes (Miles, Wes, Dizzy, etc.) I needed to honor them by finding and developing my own voice on the guitar. There were explosions of good music in Pop Music as well, and those of us my age listened to everything that appealed to us--the category didn't matter. However, jazz was always my foundation; I simply tried to build a new structure based on that solid foundation.

What is the impact of Jazz music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Wow what a question. The short answer is that jazz is an African-based music. You don't have to be African to play it but you must understand the "African" aspects of the music in order to play it the right way. What is great is that Jazz is America's only original art form. We can take this music worldwide and bring people together--everybody loves this music--this vital, vibrant jazz music. It brings people together in the most beautiful of ways.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

With your permission I want a two-location time machine; first I want to go Kansas City when Count Basie and Charlie Parker were swinging' through to the wee hours of the morning, and then, Mr. time machine, take me to wherever Maria Callas is and let me hear her rehearse "Carmen" with a great orchestra so I can enjoy the greatest voice that ever sang in this world.

Larry Coryel - Official website

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