Wednesday, November 28, 2018


Jazz encyclopedias classify the late jazz guitarist Larry Coryell’s album “Spaces” as one of the greatest fusion albums ever made, which is a mistake. Some reviewers may not have listened to the album in question. It is actually a straight-ahead set of sessions of jazz improvisations where the two creators of the jazz-rock style, Coryell and John McLaughlin, left volume and feedback behind. The album is beautifully realized, from the Coltranesque post-bop overdrive on “Renee’s Theme” to Coryell’s impressionistic “Wrong is Right”. Coryell is the hard charger here, fleet, angular, filling spaces with intricate note clusters, while McLaughlin is into spaces, silences, short lines, and beautiful bits of filigree. Bassist Miroslav Vitous is terrific, and drummer Billy Cobham works miracles throughout this excellent wash of music. This album is a mad flurry of guitar brilliance. 

Toku Du is among Coryell’s “straight-ahead” jazz albums, a 1988 set of sessions focusing on jazz standards that combine the guitarist with Stanley Cowell (piano), Buster Williams (bass), and Beaver Harris (drums). The results are academic. These tunes, such as Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”, Monk’s “Round 'Midnight”, and “My Funny Valentine”, get a neat, circumspect treatment that lacks guts. The guitarist approaches these “straight-ahead” projects as if he’s doing penance for past sins or trying to recover his reputation as a musician since his coke-fueled days in the waning days of fusion. Coryell improves with a later release, My Shining Hour, where he rolls up his sleeves and rages on material from Miles, Ellington, et al. The playing on the later release is liberated and exhilarating, and his band on that session swings and rocks and pulses with a verve that the present disc lacks. Coryell always bears a listen, but when he is terrible, he chews a foul root.

Not that Coryell has forgotten the jazz-rock that made his reputation in the Sixties, as we can see with Cause and Effect, which highlights the guitarist in a Tony Williams Lifetime format with keyboardist Tom Coster and former Journey drummer Steve Smith. Coryell is back in his native land, jazz-rock, and the results are prodigious, fleet, and searing. Coster and Smith, on keyboards and drums respectively, are a galvanized rhythm section that switch-hits time signatures and polyrhythms with a slamming accent. Coryell is very much at home, cutting, swift, and brilliant. Freed from the archivist’s sense of delicacy with older tunes “in the tradition”, Coryell follows his wild, sober instincts and lets the notes fly; he hasn’t been this exciting in a fusion context since his controversial work with Mingus. Fine and shredding.

It’s been instructive to revisit jazz guitarist Larry Coryell after a decade or so in other neighborhoods. A pioneer of jazz-fusion, this musician is, at his best, wildly inventive, cranky, blistering, and rapid-fire, someone akin to Jeff Beck in ways of attacking an improvisation from unexpected angles. Like Beck, his body of work is erratic, and one wonders if Coryell might have become stuck on the fence in mid-career, performing an unsatisfying amalgam of mainstream bop standards, pop-jazz, and less than worthy funk and rock blends.

Fortunately, age and good sense have toughened the guitarist’s technique; his albums Tricycles and the more recent Earthquake at the Avalon are both excellent examples of this man’s ability to display a fresh delicacy on ballads, fleet-fingered flurries on the accelerated compositions, and a hard-nosed edge on the blues. Of the two albums, Tricycles gets the higher marks, as Coryell has a sweet trio in bassist Mark Egan and drummer Paul Wertico who pull off a varied set of styles with the ease of a unit that knows the strengths and nuances of each other’s respective approaches. Coryell’s guitar fairly bristles and sparkles through his rich chord voicings and new essays, with Egan and Wertico upping the rhythmic ante.

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