Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Larry Coryell

Social networking has almost been the death of blogging for me. I've thrown away lots of what would once have been blog posts in Facebook comments. For shame.

But then again, reconnecting via FB with a slightly older guitarist I knew slightly and looked up to in my misguided yoof led to my getting back in touch (not via FB) with one of the cats that really inspired me to play, way back in 1969, when I was 12. Who knew that seeing a 15-year-old boy in leather pants sing in public for (I recently learned) the first time in his life could light a fire in the heart that hasn't burned out in over 40 years?

I never did get over that moment. Last week, when the li'l Stoogeband was playing at the Fort Worth Weekly music awards showcase thingy, I looked over at the other guys during the chaotic climax of "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" and thought to myself, "This band sounds like a fucking tidal wave. I love this more than anything else I've ever done in my life." So thank you, Carl Johnson.

It was also through social networking that I discovered that Richard Hurley, who's been the guitar on the other side of Stoogeaphilia's stage for four years now, used to take lessons from jazz guitarist Sam Walker, and that Sam was responsible for turning Richard on to both Frank Zappa (a shared enthusiasm of which I was aware) and Larry Coryell (an old fave, of whom I hadn't thought in over three decades).

Back in '72, when I started hanging out at the hipi record store where I started working the following year, Coryell was one of the guitarists (pre-Breezin' George Benson was another) that Johnny Lum, the guitar-playing (at least allegedly -- I never heard him) son of the local Chinese restaurant owner, used to advocate. (Johnny was one of the guys who talked me out of buying the Move's Shazam! in favor of the first Led Zeppelin album; I should have trusted my gut.)

I've never really been moved by jazz guitar. I admire jazz guitarists' chordal fluency and lightning dexterity, but I don't dig the flat, bassy tone that I grew up associating with jazz guitar. I want to hear more blood on the strings; I blame it on Hendrix, and John Lee Hooker. But after Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow momentarily convinced my guitar mentor and me that we needed to learn how to "play good," I spent a year practicing chromatic scales on a wide-necked nylon-string (mainly to learn how to use the fourth finger on my left hand) and working my way through a Mickey Baker jazz chord book and the Music Theory 101 text I swiped from a bud who was taking at community college.

In this, I was also influenced by Robert Fripp, who told Guitar Player in their October '75 Hendrix issue that Jimi's "technique was inefficient and misled many younger players," of which I was one. (Same issue where Coryell talked about trying to cut Jimi and getting his head handed to him.) At the end of the year, I was laughed out of jams with guys I taught how to play. "You used to be good," they said. "Now you suck." So much for self-improvement.

Anyway, during this period, I listened to a lot of Coryell. I saw him live twice: once with the Eleventh House in '74 at Albany (my buddy and I were GARRRUUUNNNK and yelled "Rock and roll!" throughout his set -- I'm not proud of it, but I did it); once in acoustic duo with Steve Khan, opening for Tony Williams' New Lifetime with Allan Holdsworth at My Father's Place in Old Roslyn ca. '77. I owned a few of his records, but listened most often to the 2LP Essential Larry Coryell on Vanguard, from which I learned two of his pieces ("Stiffneck" and "After Later") that I used as exercises during my year in the 'shed. Earlier this week, I was surprised that I could remember them after not having heard them in 35 years.

Back then, I always saw Coryell as a kind of lesser John McLaughlin. (Not that I was a McLaughlin fan; while I liked his stuff with Miles Davis, particularly In A Silent Way, I thought of Mahavishnu Orchestra as "music you'd hear on an elevator going to hell.") Compared to McLaughlin's monolithic sound (particularly with Mahavishnu) and machine gun-like facility, Coryell's conception seemed all over the map: part blazing technique, part rustic pastoralismo, part Hendrixian acid-blues aleatoricism. (I wasn't yet hip to Sonny Sharrock, with whom Coryell shared space in Herbie Mann's band. And I wasn't giving Larry his due for having come up in the same Pac Northwest rock milieu as Jimi.) In the fullness of time, he'd ditch the rock, reinvent himself as an acoustic virtuoso, and become a whole lot less interesting to your humble chronicler o' events.

Turns out that I was just buying the wrong Coryell records back then. There was a moment when "jazz-rock fusion" meant more than exhibitionism and lucre. I just missed it because I was busy learning about Brit R&B and Chicago blues. In retrospect, it seems like the banner year for Coryell records was 1971, the year when he released Live At the Village Gate for Vanguard and Barefoot Boy for Flying Dutchman.

On Village Gate's "Beyond These Chilling Winds," Coryell manages to approximate Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love R&B ballad rhythm tone behind the vocal (shared by Coryell and his wife Julie) before taking off on a skirling modal raga that sounds like the full realization of everything that the Byrds, the Butterfield Blues Band, Cream, and even the Move's Roy Wood were attempting between '66 and '68, with his rhythm section (bassist Mervin Bronson and drummer Harry Wilkerson) careening into Bruce-Baker or Redding-Mitchell's orbit.

Barefoot Boy was recorded at Electric Lady with Eddie Kramer behind the board and Impulse/Flying Dutchman honcho Bob Thiele producing. On "Gypsy Queen" -- a tune previously covered by Santana but composed by Gabor Szabo, who went on to influence Captain Beefheart's guitarists to adopt hollowbody guitars for their feedback-producing properties after Coryell supplanted him in drummer Chico Hamilton's band -- Coryell follows a Coltranesque soprano solo by Steve Marcus (whose Tomorrow Never Knows was an excellent example of early jazz-rock) with blasts of feedback and an episode of Sharrockian chaos-slide before unleashing the full force of his wah-driven, distortion-drenched 16th-note fury, finishing with an exhibition of cleansing noise worthy Jimi when he was first mapping out the territory in his Are You Experienced? daze.

Besides the fact that they're closer in spirit and noise quotient to the music I like to listen to and play now, what these tracks reveal is that Coryell was more of a chance-taker in the manner of Hendrix and Sharrock than I gave him credit for at the time, or than his later records or live performance indicated. It's a pleasure to be reminded of him now, and to discover how much more he had up his sleeve than I realized.


Post a Comment

<< Home