In Memoriam: Larry Coryell (Uncle Larry: My Teacher, My Mentor, My Friend)
I had the honor of knowing Larry Coryell for almost 15 years. Even longer as a fan, but I had the privilege as a musician and as his student to learn the multiple facets of the man. Behind his back, I called him “Uncle Larry” as to me he was like that cool, crazy uncle who’s stories you loved so much you always wanted him around.
When he talked about music, any kind, he spoke like a dedicated fan as though he hadn’t been part of changing it. He spoke with awe, wonder, and humility, the way most musicians spoke of him. “You know Kurt Rosenwinkel? Man, that guy is revolutionizing the guitar.” He could stop mid-tune and talk for an hour about a chord voicing and all of the mileage you could get out of it. It was always fresh and a marvel to him.
I once came to a lesson prepared with a Wes Montgomery blues called “Sundown” and Larry a real Wes Montgomery aficionado. To my surprise, it was actually the one Wes tune he did not know. Really!? So, I had the honor of teaching Larry Coryell, the “Godfather of Fusion,” a Wes tune. It was amazing to be thanked for bringing that tune to the table. A rare moment where the student becomes the teacher.
“Very nice,” he said after conquering “Sundown”. When Larry gave a compliment it was always genuine and when he said that you just “hipped him” to something, you can coast on that fuel for a lifetime.
“Sundown” is swinging version of what works like a jazzier “Stormy Monday” blues. Oddly enough, the first time Larry jammed with my band, Licorice, we played “Stormy Monday” and he happened to grab a mic to sing! Who knew Larry sang? He was always just so present in the moment. He then packed up his guitar during our last song, “Crosstown Traffic” a Jimi Hendrix cover, because he was “in the limo with Jimi when he finished the lyrics to that one.”
I first heard Larry’s name while jamming in college. Over a college break, I saw an 11th House reunion at the Blue Note in New York performance. That was the flint that lit the spark and put me on the solid path to Jazz Fusion. I also had access to a VHS recording of Larry, Paco de Lucia, and John McLaughlin at the Royal Albert Hall in 1979. It was stratospheric guitar playing, and otherworldly. The three pushed each other to speeds and rhythms most players still aspire to. As a guitarist, all of this was earth shattering and alluring. The 11th House was a powerful fusion group that pushed grooves beyond boundaries with its contemporaries like Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was hooked.
Later on, I learned that I really first heard Larry when I bought my first two jazz albums. One was the “The Best of Billie Holliday” and the other was Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground. I wasn’t even playing guitar yet, and asked an older friend what to buy “to get into jazz more.” He said, “Definitely buy one of the female vocalists, either Ella or Billie, and then buy this Herbie Mann album.” It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later when I was going back to the basics that I learned the guitarists on Memphis Underground were Sonny Sharrock and Larry Coryell. I had been listening to my mentor all along.