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 .
“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.