Larry Coryell - from Texas to India via Scotland


For a man who named a track on one of his early albums after this fair country, Larry Coryell hasn’t graced Scotland with his guitar’s presence very often.


In fact, it’s now twenty years since Coryell, one of the architects of jazz-rock fusion visited his one-time apparent muse and it’s time, he says, to put the record straight on how the track Scotland came to be named.


"I’d love to tell you that that tune was inspired by the beautiful countryside and the peacefulness and the sheep, of course, that I found there," he says. "But when I wrote it, I hadn’t actually been to Scotland yet."


The facts are more prosaic. Coryell had written a melody with an accompanying drone. It wasn’t necessarily conceived as a bagpipe drone but the first person he played it to, one of his guitar students, immediately said that it make him think of Scotland, and the association stuck.


Coryell subsequently spent the summer of 1971 in a country house in the hills near Lockerbie that his friend and sometime bass playing partner Jack Bruce found for him, along with his then wife, Julie, and young son, Murali. Despite falling in love with the surrounding Dumfriesshire countryside, however, he has made only sporadic return visits.


Back in 1987, by which time Murali had left school and was on his way to his own career in music, Coryell senior deputised for John McLaughlin in Peshkar, an all star Indian music troupe including percussionist Zakir Hussain and violinist L Shankar, who played a memorable concert in Edinburgh. By a strange coincidence, since Indian music is only one strand of Coryell’s work, there’s an Indian connection behind his latest visit, with Bombay Jazz.


"I’ve always been interested in Indian culture and I’ve always respected the versatility of the pure Indian musicians," he says. "As jazz musicians, we admire virtuosity and we have a lot in common with Indian players. Essentially, we’re all improvisers; it’s just that we come from different foundations."


Originally from Galveston, in Texas – a fact that made his later friendship with the composer of Glen Campbell’s hit song Galveston, Jimmy Webb, all the sweeter – Coryell grew up in Washington state and started playing professionally around Seattle. He moved to New York in 1965 and began an odyssey that found him quickly befriending, as well as Jimmy Webb, Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson of The Band and the then hippie’s favourite jazz musician, Charles Lloyd.


They were exciting times. Vibes master Gary Burton had just left Stan Getz’s band and was forging ahead with a style of jazz that embraced ideas from the pop charts and country music, and Coryell added his blues-rock style to Burton’s quartet. Burton’s weren’t the only kind of vibes going around and Coryell, while keeping his act together to make significant contributions to flag-waving albums including Burton’s Duster and Lofty Fake Anagram, enthusiastically partook of the substances available.


By the time, at the end of the 1960s, that the popular guru Sri Chinmoy was gathering adherents to his Eastern philosophies among musicians including John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, Coryell was keen to embrace the guru’s ideas but hampered, he concedes, by his "sex and drugs karma." The drugs element of that karma, added to conspicuous alcohol consumption, would continue to be a problem for Coryell into the 1980s when the combination of a timely intervention by drummer Elvin Jones, who’d had his own problems, and Coryell’s adoption of Buddhist chanting changed his life.


Throughout the 1970s, Coryell continued to make music without a guru-given name such as McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu and Santana’s Devadip, although it was Sri Chinmoy who named Coryell’s son Murali. He made waves with albums including Spaces, which he recorded with a heavyweight cast including McLaughlin and Chick Corea, and his band Eleventh House were among the fusion stars of the era. He also took part in Charles Mingus’ final recordings, including the albums Three or Four Shades of Blue and Me, Myself an Eye, recorded with Sonny Rollins and made an album with Miles Davis that never saw the light of day.


Meanwhile, the interest in Indian music that his brief involvement with Sri Chinmoy had triggered, led to him working with top musicians including violinist L Subramaniam, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and percussionist V.K. Vinayakram. With Bombay Jazz, where he joins saxophonist George Brooks, flautist Ronu Majumbar and Vijay Ghate (tablas), Coryell is continuing a voyage of discovery that’s already been going on with Subramaniam for some thirty years.


"It’s the same in jazz, you never reach a stage of knowing everything," he says. "What I love about playing with these guys particularly, though, is learning more about their rules of improvisation because jazz improvisation is based on scales and chords, whereas Indian music has no chords to speak of."


Adding harmony to melody and rhythm puts an entirely different perspective on the music, Coryell maintains.


"Ronu Majumdar, who is an amazing player on the simple bamboo flute, the bansuri, actually stopped in rehearsals the other day and said, Whoa, we’re going out of the scale here. Now, that’s quite a big deal for a musician who’s been used to playing within strict guidelines. So this is something new and exciting for all of us but it seems to work."


From The Herald, October 18, 2007. 


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