An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
When listening to Larry Coryell’s 2015 album Heavy Feel, you realize just why it has been nearly impossible to pigeonhole this veteran guitarist after nearly 50 years in the business. Never one to adhere to rules, restrictions, or labels, Coryell continues to think outside the box and does exactly what he feels is right. From electric workouts to fantastic acoustic fretwork, Heavy Feel is the work of an artist who refuses to stand still, artistically. At some point in their careers, many musicians will simply sit back and let their reputation speak for them, but Coryell is different – his reputation is the foundation upon which he continues to build, explore and expand. Larry is best known for his Jazz Fusion recordings, but don’t let that fool you – on Heavy Feel, he covers it all. It is as if the spirit that moved and motivated him on his debut album back in 1968 is still alive deep within him, kicking and screaming.
Born in Galveston, Texas, Coryell began to make waves in the mid-‘60s when he moved to New York and played in Chico Hamilton’s Quintet. In the 50 years since then, he’s worked alongside Gary Burton, Randy Brecker, Herbie Mann, Charles Mingus, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Steve Khan, Stephane Grappelli, Emily Remler, Wayne Shorter, Jim Pepper and many, many others. His work with The Eleventh House in the mid-‘70s – which also featured Brecker and Alphonse Mouzon – laid the groundwork for Jazz Fusion. However, Jazz was not necessarily Larry’s first love. His musical influences reach back to the Blues and early Rock ‘n’ Roll, both of which have informed, but not defined, his unique style. In fact, it can be said that his pioneering work in the Jazz Fusion genre was not simply a conscious melding of Jazz and Rock, but Coryell’s refusal to color within the lines.
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Heavy Feel has just been released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction so far?
LARRY CORYELL: Well, the reaction has been very good. When we made it a year ago, in July, I felt it had some good possibilities.
SPAZ: Casual Jazz listeners may not associate this primal live feel to the Jazz genre. Do you enjoy capturing that raw sound when you make a record?
LARRY: Absolutely! I like to get down into the earth.
SPAZ: You are commonly perceived as a Jazz artist, yet you never really have fit comfortably in that box. Do you purposely try to knock down those preconceived borders when you make a record?
LARRY: Yeah, yeah. I don’t want to fit in a box at all. I just do what I do. I mean, two nights ago I went to see a Jeff Beck concert. He played his ass off.
SPAZ: Do you think that your ability to blend and transcend these genres has played a big part in your longevity?
LARRY: Perhaps it has. I’ve never really thought about it that way. I just basically do what I do and what I do just comes from something sincere from inside my life. Once you figure what it is you like, you go ahead and do it so you can be true to yourself.
SPAZ: The album has this great mix of electric and acoustic. At this point, do you feel a deeper connection to either one – acoustic or electric?
LARRY: Not really. I just feel an equally strong connection to both types of guitar. There are certain things on the electric that, in my opinion, need to be played on the electric and certain things on the acoustic that need to be played on the acoustic. It’s just a judgment call. You follow what you feel.
SPAZ: The album was recorded in a day, but how much prep time actually goes into a session like this?
LARRY: You know, I can’t remember. I prepared some of the music ahead of time. Actually, we went in and recorded “2011 East” the night before the all-day session. We recorded that with George Brooks the night before. I was actually just coming from a gig in Oakland. We did that in order to break the ice, to get accustomed to the vibe in the studio with the personnel at hand and then we started the next morning nice and fresh.
SPAZ: You’ve worked with George in the past. Even though you trust each other musically, do you still end up surprising each other on a fairly regular basis?
LARRY: That’s part of the trust. That’s exactly what the trust means. One of my favorite moments is on “Jailbreak” when George goes into his solo. The way he works with the third step of the scale – the way he uses it and repeats and changes it and varies it and keeps it simple enough for the other three of us to twirl around him a little bit harmonically and musically – was one of my favorite moments on the record.
SPAZ: You have to build up trust with these musicians in order to get into this improvisational groove. Can that trust be an instantaneous thing or do you really have to develop it over time?
LARRY: Well, it’s both. It’s instantaneous in as much as we start playing. Like with Matt Montgomery, I started playing with him the year before when we did the previous record, The List – we got right into it. He just brought in some sheet music and we started recording. So, it works right away. At the same time, the more we played together – like on “The Way It Was,” a composition of his that was very, very different from the compositions he wrote from the previous CD – we would go into a whole different direction of trust on that composition.
SPAZ: This is definitely a Larry Coryell album, but you allow so much space for the other players to be featured. It feels more like a musical democracy than a solo release.
LARRY: Yes! I’ve always believed in that. I’m taking the band over to Pennsylvania today to do a Jazz festival. Everybody’s gonna get ample solo space. I’ve got enough confidence in my charisma that I don’t need to hog the show.
SPAZ: As a musician, is there a lot more satisfaction in recording an album in a day, or do you prefer to piece things together over time?
LARRY: It was tough to make an entire record in a short period of time. I would have preferred a series of sessions rather than just one like we did, but that was just the demands of the business structure of the project. So, as a professional, I just shape myself to fit in with that business structure so we can come out with a good result.
SPAZ: If you went out and played this record today, would it sound totally different?
LARRY: Not totally, but there would be some changes. There’s a lot of space, at least in my compositions, where you play a short melody and then everything else you make up – everything else. You’re on your own. And we just base ourselves on the structure and the skeletal aspects of the composition, and improvise based on that, but nothing more than that.
SPAZ: Who were your main influences? Was your move into Jazz/Rock a conscious decision?
LARRY: Yes, it was. My influences were B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Chet Atkins…people like that. Early on, I listened to all the really great Jazz guitar players like Tal Farlow. I like modern players today like John Scofield and Pat Metheny. I just played with a guy yesterday. He lives in New York. He’s from Pakistan, but he’s been in this country for about 20 years. His name is Rez Abbasi. I love the way he plays. He’s playing Jazz, but you can’t recognize his phrases – they’re not clichés.
SPAZ: What’s next for Larry Coryell?
LARRY: The project we’re starting today is five guitars plus rhythm section. We’re gonna do some Jazz charts based on the music of George Gershwin. Jack Wilkins is one of the guitarists, and as we start to play more gigs, we’re going to incorporate some guitar arrangements that I wrote based on some Stravinsky compositions. The point being, I don’t want to just play the same old stuff all the time. I want to keep doing new things. And that’s why I like to surround myself with players who are really inspiring. At a certain point in a set, I can just sit on my chair and let everybody just play – I don’t have to get in there and run the show. I can make a few comments and when it’s time to get in and dominate – if it’s called for – then I’ll do that. But, everything is always spontaneous. Jazz is improvisation, which is another way to say spontaneous composition. Composing spontaneously – that’s what’s so great about it.
SPAZ: And it’s a lot better than spontaneous combustion.
LARRY: You better believe it!
Thanks to Larry Coryell
Special thanks to Larry Germack, Dana House and Nick Kominitsky