Guitar Master Larry Coryell
makes his Berks Jazz Fest Debut
By Rob Nagy
One of the pioneers of the jazz-rock movement of the late 1960’s, visionary Larry Coryell helped usher in the age of fusion. For this one time journalism student, the guitar became his purpose.
Exhibiting a passion for rock guitar as a teenager, Coryell didn’t consider himself good enough to pursue a career in music. While at the University of Washington studying journalism, he continued taking guitar lessons, as he was determined to master the instrument.
“Once I realized that I was totally hooked on this music, somewhere between the end of high school and the beginning of college, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” recalls Coryell, from his Orlando, Florida home. “It wasn’t even that I wanted to do it. I had to. I had to do this. This was my mission!”
By 1965, after dropping out of college, Coryell relocated to New York City, where he focused on taking classical guitar lessons.
Inspired by the works of Chet Atkins, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery and Chuck Berry, Coryell, like so many of his musical peers, was affected by the music of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Byrds. It was the combination of all of these influences that played a major role in Coryell’s merging of jazz and rock into his unique playing style.
“You have to break away and find your own sound,” says Coryell. “That’s the challenge of jazz, in my opinion. I have a lot of appreciation for everything, even the negative stuff. I’m grateful that I have an opportunity to advance our music.”
“It’s a two-pronged thing as I see it,” adds Coryell. “Of course, I want to preserve and respect the tradition that inspired me to become a jazz musician in the first place. At the same time, I feel it’s imperative that I continue to develop my own course.”
In 1969, Coryell recorded his classic album "Spaces," now revered as one of his greatest works. Featuring fellow guitarist John McLaughlin, Chick Corea (electric piano), Miroslav Vitous (bass) and Billy Cobham (drums), jazz enthusiasts consider this to be the embryo from which the jazz-fusion movement of the 1970’s emerged.
“It’s really with whom I’m playing that determines a lot of the way that I play,” says Coryell. “I try to play with people who bring out the best in me. Choice of musicians is so important.”
Garnering attention at a time when Jim Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana were attaining international stardom, Coryell was making an indelible mark beyond the world of rock and roll.
“Like any artist, I would like to play as brilliantly as possible,” adds Coryell, “which means more soul than chops, more intelligence than flash. That’s what I want. I’d rather touch people’s hearts than impress their minds.”
“I’m about to release a new album called “Heavy Feel,” says Coryell. “It sounds like it could have been from the era when “The Police” put out sounds like “Every Breath You Take.” We used that kind of foundation, and on the top I channeled my Ramsey Lewis and got funky. It came out beautifully. I really like it.”
“There are also two selections that are compositions from an opera that I composed,” adds Coryell. “I’m always looking to do tunes from Broadway, so I just thought I would do something from my own musical/big stage production history, which is a grand total of one work.”
At 71, Coryell finds himself in a good place doing something he is passionate about for an audience that remains loyal.
“I did some serious partying for about 19 years,” recalls Coryell. “I reached a point in my life where it was definitely time to put the toys away, and I haven’t gone back since. Staying healthy and continuing to change, which is very hard to do, is what drives me.”
“It is essential to stay teachable,” adds Coryell. “There is always stuff to learn. I practice every day. I do a lot of arranging and composing, so it’s at least six hours a day. When I’m on the road, I stay up all night and write arrangements. There is always room for improvement, not just in playing but composing. A heart felt jazz composition with soulful soloing, whether with a lot of virtuosity or not - there is no substitute.”
A practicing Buddhist, Coryell routinely draws on his inner strength for the peace and the enlightenment that defines the core of who he is and who he wants to be.
“It’s challenging, but it’s a pleasurable challenge in the sense that if my life ambition is high enough, I can view every possibility, every aspect that’s negative as a possibility for enlightenment,” says Coryell. “It’s not easy, but if you work hard at it, it pays off, especially over the long run.”
“The forgiveness element in Christianity is a beautiful thing,” adds Coryell. “The mercy aspect is a beautiful thing. In Buddhism, we embrace all of that. When I play, I try to be someone who is enlightening the listener rather than entertaining them.”
Larry Coryell performs at the Berks Jazz Fest Friday April 17, 2015 at 7:30 P.M. The festival runs from April 10 to April 19, 2015. For a complete list of concerts, venues and ticket information, visit www.berksjazzfest.com.
To stay up to date with Larry Coryell, visit www.larrycoryell.com.