Larry Coryell, Guitarist of Fusion Before It Had a Name, Dies at 73
By PETER KEEPNEWSFEB. 21, 2017
Larry Coryell performing at the World Trade Center in 1994. Alan Nahigian
Larry Coryell, a virtuoso guitarist who in the 1960s was among the first musicians to bring a rock sound and sensibility to jazz, and who continued to blur the lines between genres throughout his career, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 73.
The cause was heart failure, a spokesman, John Lappen, said. Mr. Coryell, who lived in Orlando, Fla., had been in New York to perform at the Iridium in Midtown on Friday and Saturday and died in his hotel room.
Most established jazz musicians regarded rock with suspicion if not hostility when Mr. Coryell arrived in New York from Washington State in 1965. But a younger cohort, steeped in the Beatles as well as bebop, was beginning to explore an approach that bridged the stylistic gap.
Mr. Coryell, who had grown up listening to a wide range of music, became one of the leaders of that cohort.
He initially attracted international attention in 1967 with the vibraphonist Gary Burton’s quartet, which some music historians call the first jazz-rock band. But he had been experimenting with what would soon come to be called fusion even before then.
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In 1966 he recorded an album with the Free Spirits, a short-lived rock band that mixed radio-friendly melodies with adventurous stretches of instrumental improvisation. Most of the group’s members — including the drummer Bob Moses, who would also join the Burton quartet, and the saxophonist Jim Pepper — had jazz backgrounds.
Mr. Coryell counted Chuck Berry and the country guitarist Chet Atkins among his early inspirations. He also came under the spell of jazz at a young age, teaching himself to play along with records by Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and other masters.
His round, ringing tone and his propensity for bending notes placed him outside the jazz guitar mainstream, but he was never all that concerned with labels.
“If music has something to say to you, whether it’s jazz, country-and-western, Indian music or Asian folk music, go ahead and use it,” Mr. Coryell told an interviewer in 1968.
Such a sentiment may seem commonplace today, but it was rare in the mid-1960s, before Miles Davis and other older jazz musicians embraced a similarly eclectic philosophy, as Mr. Coryell himself did throughout his career. Over the years he worked with rock musicians like Jack Bruce and jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins (he also recorded with Davis, although the material from that session remains officially unreleased), as well as with musicians from India, Brazil and elsewhere.
Mr. Coryell began performing and recording as a leader in 1968, with a clear idea of what he wanted in a band. “One side of my personality likes the soft stuff, the jazz,” he told The New York Times in 1968. “The other side likes to play hard things, rock, with big amps. I have to get musicians who can go both ways.”
On his album “Spaces” (1970), considered a high-water mark of the fusion movement, he was accompanied by leading exemplars of the genre, most notably his fellow guitarist John McLaughlin, with whom he would work off and on throughout his career.
The loud side of Mr. Coryell’s personality took center stage in 1972 when he formed the Eleventh House, a seminal fusion band that emphasized complex, thunderous compositions and flashy, rapid-fire solos. (The band’s powerhouse drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, went on to become a star in his own right. He died in December.) After the Eleventh House disbanded in 1975, Mr. Coryell turned off the amps for a while to focus on acoustic guitar.
By the 1980s he was again playing an electric instrument, but this time in a straight-ahead jazz context. Reviewing a 1985 performance for The Times, Jon Pareles noted that Mr. Coryell had moved from the “machine-gun scales and riffs” of his early years to “the subtler pleasures of jazz.”
“The slower Larry Coryell plays his guitar,” Mr. Pareles wrote, “the better he gets.”
Mr. Coryell toggled between jazz and jazz-rock, electric and acoustic for the rest of his career; he had been scheduled to go on tour with a new version of the Eleventh House in June.
Larry Coryell was born Lorenz Albert Van DeLinder III in Galveston, Tex., on April 2, 1943. He never knew his biological father, a musician; he was raised by his mother, Cora, who encouraged him to learn piano when he was 4, and his stepfather, Gene Coryell, a chemical engineer. He grew up in the Seattle area, played guitar in local bands as a teenager and, after briefly studying journalism at the University of Washington, moved to New York to pursue a career in music.
He is survived by his wife, the former Tracey Piergross; two daughters, Allegra Coryell and Annie White; two sons, Murali and Julian; and six grandchildren. His previous two marriages ended in divorce.
Mr. Coryell never stopped looking to expand his musical horizons. In recent years, Mr. Lappen said, he had completed two operas based on works by Tolstoy, and had been working on another, inspired by James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” at his death.