In the pantheon of living guitar legends, Larry Coryell ranks right up there with the best of them, even though his name has less marquee value than many of the musicians he has spent his career playing with--e.g., John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, Al DiMeola, Chick Corea, Stephane Grappelli, Jaco Pastorius, Charles Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie. Coryell stopped by the Artist's Quarter in St. Paul on Saturday night to play a couple of sets (a rare occasion in these parts), and was greeted by a roomful of faithful followers eager to sit, if only for a few moments, at the master's feet.
Coryell's career has spanned forty years, seventy-five or so albums, and thousands upon thousands of live performances all over the world. He's often referred to as "the godfather of fusion" because of his association in the 1970s with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia, but he has a reputation among guitar wonks as the most cerebral and authentic of jazz's living legends, if only because he continues to prefer acoustic hollow-body guitars and, in later life (he's in his mid-sixties) has re-dedicated himself to maintaining the traditions of such previous legends as Wes Montgomery, John Coltraine, and Phil Evans.
Larry Coryell through the years:
1960s 1970s 2000
The truth about Coryell, though, is that back in the day he was an enthusiastic user of hallucinogens, including heroin, and he's traveled as far out on the musical edge as anyone--anyone who has actually come back, that is. Having lived through it, he has replaced drugs with Nichiren Buddhism and is now simply grateful to play, a privilege many of his collaborators over the years can no longer enjoy.
These days, Coryell plays sitting down most of the time, and often solo--but at the AQ he came armed with drummer Alphonse Mouzon, who anchored Coryell's band Eleventh House back in the 1970s, and Hammond B3 organ aficionado Joe Bagg. From the stage, Coryell pointed out that theirs was a trio format popular in the 1940s but largely out of favor today. Which is a pity, because when that organ starts wailing, it can go places no other instrument can travel.
It was an odd combo, though. Holding court on drums, Mouzon has jet-black dreadlocks and looks about as cool as a dude can possibly look without actually getting frost on his glasses. Coryell has always looked a bit nerdy, but nowadays he sports a huge shock of white hair that gives him the visage of a Southern Baptist preacher. Meanwhile, back on organ, Joe Bagg looks like he's taking time off from his day job as an insurance actuary; he couldn't be plainer if you stuffed him full of saltines.
I only caught the first set, which featured some tasteful homages to Coltraine and Evans, but things didn't really kick into gear until mid-way through a Wes Montgomery-inspired version of "Impressions." (Incidentally, Coryell is one of the few guitarists who can actually play like Montgomery, using only his right thumb to pick.) Then again, Coryell is one of those guitarists who can--and has--played everything, so he doesn't pressure himself with constantly having to dazzle his audience. Just when things started jumping, he decided to slow it down by dedicating a tasteful acoustic solo version of "Our Love is Here to Stay" to his wife, Tracey, who is at least thirty years his junior. He then invited Tracey onstage to sing a fairly peppy, jazzy version of Tracy Chapman's "Gimme One Reason," in which he expanded the twelve-bar blues palette by about twenty or thirty chords.
The set was only an hour long, but finished with Coryell and company reaching back into their bag of tricks for an Eleventh Hour tune called "Funky Waltz," which drummer Mouzon wrote and during which he played monstrously, trading eights with Coryell and Bagg the way Coryell's bands used to do all the time, but now only go occasionally, as if being exposed to too much genius in one sitting is somehow unhealthy. Those who were there got a taste of what Coryell can do--but only a taste. The only thing to do now is savor it and hope he comes back soon to serve up some more.
In case you missed it, here's a modest sampling of Sat. night's show at the AQ: