Daily Archives: March 19, 2017

R.I.P. Larry Coryell, April 2, 1943-February 19, 2017

A month ago, the jazz world lost the important guitarist Larry Coryell. I didn’t know him well, but had the honor of hosting him twice during my years at WKCR and of being asked to write the liner notes for the 2003 High Note recording, Cedars of Avalon, which appears below.

“At 59, having “lived and loved and lost and paid all the dues,” guitarist Larry Coryell presents Cedars of Avalon, on which he improvises through a program primarily comprising modernist blues and songbook torch tunes filtered through a bebop prism. It’s the latest chapter in Coryell’s two-decade exploration of early roots, which he began to revisit on the heels of an efflorescent early career that saw him famously navigate—indeed, pioneer in—genres as diverse as Jazz-Rock, Fusion, and creative classical guitar. Here Coryell tells rich stories in a singular voice within the bedrock forms of jazz.

“When we were doing the stuff that is now called Fusion, the musicians I collaborated with didn’t agree on much,” Coryell says. “But we were trying to inject something from our own generation. There was a lot of pressure on me from people I played with in the middle ’60s to play different stuff. Some suggested not to play too much bebop, and the other extreme was ‘play more like Albert Ayler.’ Everything I did with Eleventh House and all the Jazz-Rock was a conscious effort not to copy the heroes and find my own voice. I needed to take that detour. I needed to make that conscious effort to be original in order to come back and better understand what I was trying to do in straight ahead jazz.”

Coryell plays on the edge throughout the program. He deploys his enviable technique as a platform for continuous chance-taking, addressing the guitar with the innocent nonchalance of a child learning the ins and outs of a new toy. Playing straight from the heart with vigor, invention and relentless swing, he grounds his elegant, passionate stories through mastery of idiomatic nuance and musical narrative. Cedars of Avalon is a snapshot of the moment, devoid of the notion of no-mistake perfection.

“I used to spend hours getting everything right,” Coryell remarks. “Then I came to understand that this is not the best way for me to record. Trying to be a perfectionist removes all the heart and spirit from music. Other guys can do it successfully. But I now accept the fact that even if I don’t play exactly what I want to, I’ve got to go with it if the overall feeling is there, because that’s the truth.”

This being said, the playing on Cedars of Avalon is remarkably consistent. That’s due in no small part to the superb rhythm section, headed by pianist Cedar Walton, the album’s dedicatee.

“I’ve been waiting for years to record with Cedar,” Coryell says. “I’ve loved his playing since college, when I heard Art Blakey’s record Golden Boy. In the middle ’80s we did some dates on the West Coast, including a jazz cruise on a boat from San Francisco to Vancouver with Billy Higgins and Freddie Hubbard. When we were getting ready to play, Cedar talked about how important it is to really love the music when you’re on the bandstand, to forget about all personal differences. That impressed me very much, and as I got to know Cedar musically, I became even crazier about his playing. We seem to be compatible in the music we like, the phrases and styles we favor.”

Rounding out the New York A-list rhythm section are bassist Buster Williams and trapsman Billy Drummond. Williams lays down impeccable walking lines on the comp and conjures a series of ebullient, guitaristic solos; Drummond, whose big ears and stylistic flexibility are a plus on any session, pushes the beat with his irresistible ride cymbal, entexturing the drum kit to suit every shift in the musical climate.

“I almost felt like an outsider,” Coryell jokes. “When I’d lay out after playing the melody, and heard them play, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a nice gig I’m attending.'”

The title track is a graceful line built on a continuously reharmonized six-note phrase that blends simplicity and sophistication in a Waltonesque manner. Coryell says: “I wrote it for Cedar and his concept. It reminds me of something he might have played with Wes Montgomery if they had ever played together.”

After Coryell’s ingenious intro to Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” which springboards a crisp, lucid Walton statement, the guitarist, in his own manner, channels his inner Wes, a recurrent reference throughout the date whenever Coryell gets his vonce going.

“That’s true,” Coryell agrees. “It worked very naturally with Cedar and the rhythm section. These guys play the real thing.”

Coryell played piano and drums and sang during his formative years in Eisenhower Era Richland, Washington (“There ain’t nothin’ in Richland; sagebrush and rattlesnakes—once I heard real jazz music, it was like ‘get me out of here.'”), but his hands were too small to maneuver around the guitar until he was 16, around 1959.

“Then I heard Wes Montgomery, and everything changed,” he relates. “I was amazed that he had such modern ideas, not to mention all the obvious pluses of his playing — his great single-note lines, the octaves and the chords. I started transcribing all of his solos.”

Coryell offers “a direct, huge thank you” to the master on “D-Natural Blues,” which Montgomery recorded on The Incredible Jazz Guitar (Riverside, 1960) in quartet with Tommy Flanagan.

Elsewhere, Coryell offers heartfelt homages to early influences Johnny Smith (“What’s New”) and Barney Kessel (“Limehouse Blues”).

“I wanted to record ‘What’s New’ all my life, but didn’t think I understood the lyric,” he says. “Now I felt qualified to make my own statement. I know other guitar players my age will pick up that I used some direct quotes from Johnny Smith’s recording — the fast major-VII arpeggios are almost note-for-note. Johnny Smith had that beautiful lyrical sustained sound and feel, and a beautiful heart that blew me away.

Coryell overdubs a rousing bass counterpoint to his fleet acoustic guitar line on “Limehouse Blues,” one of his two unaccompanied declamations. “Around the time I recorded it, I had gotten an email that Barney Kessel was disabled and needed money,” he says. “I remembered years ago listening to him play it and how blown away I was. But he did it by himself. I had to use two guitars.

“Barney’s playing was clear and forthright, especially his chord work and his ballads, and I could take his ideas off records more easily than Tal Farlow’s. I loved Tal and Johnny Smith and Barney, and I tried to transcribe all their solos.”

Later on, in New York City, Coryell found the real thing up close and personal. “I went to New York to hear bebop, and nobody was playing it,” he says. “Charles Lloyd was playing at the Vanguard with Albert Stinson, Gabor Szabo and Pete LaRoca, and I couldn’t find the one all night! But at the seventh club I went to, I finally heard something I recognized. It was in Harlem, and I saw Grant Green and Larry Young. It was a life-changing experience. Grant Green was throwin’ it down, man. His time was amazing. The notes were popping out of the guitar. I never got over it.”

Incidentally, John Coltrane applied his transcendent instrumental voice to “Limehouse Blues” on a memorable 1959 recording with Cannonball Adderley; Coryell has Trane very much in mind on Walton’s “Fantasy in D/Ugetsu” and Fred Lacey’s “Theme For Ernie.”

“Theme For Ernie” is part of Walton’s trio repertoire, and the rhythm section addresses the iconic lament with a slow-medium groove not unlike what Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor laid down underneath Coltrane’s keening statement on Soultrane [1958].

“That’s my favorite ballad,” Coryell says. “We decided we needed to do only one take. I changed the melody a little, but kept this version because the feeling was right.”

“I learned ‘Fantasy in D’ when I was on that cruise,” Coryell continues. “Then my determination became, ‘Some day I’ve got to record that with Cedar.’ It has the Coltrane feeling; that pattern at the end of each chorus, where you go from D-major to a D-minor suspended over an A. Before Coltrane, there was nothing like that in jazz; no modal thing in a song with chords. I loved it. I was afraid to think I could even play like Coltrane, but by listening to him I think I learned something. He was not just technique and different ideas. He was deep feeling; the substance of his music has touched my heart. They make me think about what a spiritual man he was.”

Coryell has similar regard for Walton’s “The Newest Blues,” a composition of more recent vintage that required exactly one take to wrap. “I’d never heard it before in my life,” Coryell says. “The challenge on a blues is always to see if you can say something you haven’t said before. I love the line, and I love the way Cedar reharmonizes blues, always with a call-and-response component. There’s a section where his piano part and the bass are unified and do a sequence of organized movement. The contrast to that when we go into the regular blues is great.”

Coryell learned “It Could Happen To You” from his mother, who died in 1999. “She used to sing that song to me a lot, and I loved her words,” he recalls. “My mother played piano as well, and everything she ever played was in E-flat—it was her favorite key. I wanted to do something in E-flat for my mother.”

With a flourish, Coryell concludes Cedars of Avalon with a solo tour de force entitled “Shapes.” “That was a direct result of an unofficial lesson from Donald Byrd,” Coryell says. “He was in Pittsburgh to receive an award when I was doing a gig with Geri Allen and Wallace Roney, and I sat in the hotel and listened to him discourse on the relationship of mathematics to music. I tried to remember everything he said, and composed the piece on that basis.

“There’s no one else in art like Donald Byrd, a jazz musician with an unbelievable intellect who had all the Apollo Theater trappings in his life and had to deal with segregation, etc. He’s like a man of the people who is also a leader in the mind. I feel fortunate to be born in this lifetime, to be exposed to people like him and all the others I love.”

Throughout Cedars of Avalon, Coryell recalls the fresh sensibility he brought to New York in 1965, a 22-year phenom fresh from Seattle, where he “played rock-and-roll in the evening, jazz at night. Rock-and-Roll was like children’s music; it came very easily. But jazz was Mount Everest, to be admired and hopefully to scale.” Now we can place the guitarist with the heroes who—to borrow the title of the late Clifford Jordan’s classic tune—have scaled the highest mountains of improvisational expression.


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R.I.P. James Cotton, July 1, 1935 – March 16, 2017

Coming out of hibernation to post an interview with James “Superharp” Cotton, master of the blues harmonica and a great singer, who died on March 16th at 81. I had a chance to interview Cotton in 2012 for the program notes for a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. I don’t know nearly as much about blues history as I do about jazz, but I thought the conversation was interesting. Among other things, his remarks about wanting his harmonica to sound like a tenor saxophone. Here’s an edit.

* * *

TP: How long have you had this current band?

JC: The current band that I have has been working with me about 20 years. Noel Neal I think is one of the best blues bass players in the business.

TP: Earlier, you used saxophone and piano, I think. When did you switch from that lineup to something more pared down with the guitars, bass and drum?

JC: I had the horn section for about four years, and there was problems carrying it on the road with everybody, and I broke the band down. So I have bass, guitar, and drums for the last eight years or so, I should say.

TP: Do you play the same repertoire all the time with this band, or do you switch things up?

JC: I switch things up.

TP: Because you’re famous for knowing tons and tons of songs.

JC: Well, we don’t do them all. But we do switch ‘em up sometimes. Sometimes we’ll do something different because of the way I feel that night. We’ll do something from everywhere.

TP: Do you still bring new songs into your band book?

JC: Yeah, I do that every year. We’ve got a CD coming out. I have new songs in there. One song has been recorded before, but the rest of it is brand-new. Although I didn’t write all of them.

TP: About how many songs have you written over the years?

JC: I don’t know. So many, I don’t know. Quite a few.

TP: I know that for a little under 20 years, for reasons of health, you’ve hardly done any singing, but you play harmonica all the time. People know solos you’ve done, those solos are famous, and hundreds of harmonica players might have memorized those solos. Do you try to play them differently every time?

JC: If it’s new. If it’s something I did before, I try to stay close to the pattern as I can.

TP: One thing I want to get to, because this is a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I wanted to ask you a bit about your attitude when you were a young musician to swing music, and rhythm-and-blues, and jazz of the time. Were you paying attention to, let’s say, Louis Jordan in the ‘50s, or other people who were bridging swing music and blues?

JC: Yeah. Back then I was listening to anything I could hear. If I heard it, I played it, or I tried to play it. Louis Jordan? I probably knew every tune Louis Jordan ever did. But I listened to about everybody I could. When you’re trying to learn something, you have a tendency to listen to use.

TP: Were you influenced in your approach to harmonica by other instruments?

JC: I try to make my harmonica sound like a tenor saxophone.

TP: Who were some of the tenor saxophone players you liked back in the day?

JC: Coltrane. I listened to James Moody. Uh…I can’t think of his name right now… I listened to quite a few horn players, because I wanted to have a different sound with my harmonica.

TP: How about singers? Everyone who knows you, knows you were apprenticed to Rice Miller and Howlin’ Wolf. But who were some of the other singers you checked out? During the days that you were singing, you had a lot of different approaches, and your voice was very flexible, went through a lot of flavors.

JC: B.B. King. John Lee Hooker. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Gatemouth Brown. Willie Mabon. I listened to everything that I could listen to with the music. I didn’t push none of it aside. I even listened to Elvis Presley when he was…you know, back in the day.

TP: I think I read an interview where you said you heard Elvis Presley before he was Elvis Presley.

JC: I did. I’d never seen him before that. Elvis used to come down to the Blue Monday party we had on Beale Street in Memphis, and he was the only white face there. He sat in and he wanted to listen.

TP: I guess you first started leading a band in 1950-51, when Rice Miller left his band to you. But full-time you’ve been leading a band about 45 years, just about? 1966?

JC: Right.

TP: Did you pick up cues from any of your mentors as far as being a bandleader.

JC: Yeah. Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy, and Muddy Waters. I didn’t do all the things they did. I tried to leave all the bad things aside. Some was good, some was bad. I tried to pick up the good things, like treating the guys right, getting them paid right…and I found out one thing—if you don’t like somebody, you can’t play with them right.

TP: How much freedom do they have within the context of your band? You mentioned that during your first four years with Muddy Waters, he wanted you to play Little Walter’s solos note-for-note. (I know all your fans know this stuff.) Then you told him that you had to play your own sound. Is that something you also want from your musicians, that they play themselves, that they play their own sound?

JC: Well, they play what they feel is right for the band, not what somebody else played with the band. Because the other way they sounded is no longer with the band. We are here together.

TP: What do you think is your greatest or couple of greatest accomplishments as a bandleader?

JC: A guy like me, comes out of Mississippi, with the “Cotton Crop Blues,” man, and wins a Grammy—that makes me feel good.

TP: Do you have any favorite records from your output? Or are they all your favorites?

JC: They’re all favorites. See, I work on something when I like it. If I don’t like it, I won’t do it. Then it won’t come out. I’m still looking forward to playing. I’m 77 years old, and I’m still doing it. It still feels good. I don’t want to quit. I love what I’m doing, and I’m going to keep right on doing it. And I find something to do every day.

TP: I forgot to ask you one question pertaining to the number of songs that are in your repertoire. During the time when you were singing, how long did it take you to put your own stamp on a song? Could you get there right away? Did it take a long time to get it? How did you go back learning all those lyrics, and making them part of your soul?

JC: I guess I was blessed with that, too. Back in the day (it’s a little bit slower now), if I heard something one time, I knew it. You could play it one time, and I’d know it word-for-word. I was pretty good about putting lyrics together.

TP: How much are you touring these days? I was looking on your website, and it seems like you’re working quite a bit.

JC: Yes. We’re going all over the world. We’re going everywhere. I’m enjoying it.

TP: Do people all over the world respond to the blues in the same way?

JC: They respond everywhere I’m doing it. The people here, they’re going to hear the blues because they know what you’re talking about. But if you’re in Europe, they feel what you’re doing. They don’t understand what you’re saying, but they’ll applaud, holler for me to come back.

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Filed under Blues, James Cotton