Unlike some wary musicians, guitarist Larry Coryell seemed to really enjoy the Before & After experience. In between selections, we talked about his 40-year recording career, lessons learned from working with Gary Burton and Jimmy Smith, his role as a jazz-rock fusion pioneer, his current power trio with Paul Wertico and Mark Egan, the shrinking jazz record industry, global politics and a recent fascination with Abraham Lincoln. His 2007 autobiography Improvisation: My Life In Music has been published by Hal Leonard, along with a retrospective print folio of Coryell compositions.
1. Tal Farlow
“Gibson Boy” (from Legends of Guitar Jazz Vol. 1, Rhino) Farlow, Barry Galbraith, guitars; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Joe Morello, drums. Recorded in 1954.
Before: It’s beautiful. Yeah! That’s Tal. [listens, chuckles] I sat with his records when I was 16 years old. He and Jimmy Raney had no text book, they just lived in New York and tried to play like Bird. I cut my teeth on that guy; His tone, his time feeling, his ideas. Tal Farlow was one of the greatest musicians in the world. but he was off the scene during the revolution, the revolution that I helped start in the middle 1960s. After he came back I went to see him in a small club in New York and George Benson was there that same night. I talked to him and I related to him a lot of things I had read about his life on the back of his albums and he said, “Oh, those are just fables.” Later on we hung out and did a bit of jamming. I showed him some of the tunes and solos I had learned off his records, he was flattered and pleased. His intro to “Yesterdays” was amazing. His entire solo on “Autumn In New York,” I carried that with me forever. That really shaped my ballad playing, it’s still with me today. That’s not even a song. That’s a composition.
After: Oh, I love Barry Galbraith. He was so humble. He made a good living as a studio musician and at that time in the middle to late 50s, that’s all I wanted to do, be a studio musician. I grew up in the sticks, man. I just wanted to make a living. I wanted to be like Barney Kessel and Kenny Burrell and Barry Galbraith.
2. Campbell Brothers
“A Change Is Gonna Come” (from Can You Feel It?, Ropeadope). Chuck Campbell, pedal steel guitar; Darick Campbell, lap steel guitar; Phil Campbell, guitar; Malcomlm Kirby, bass; John Medeski, organ; Carlton Campbell, drums. Recorded in 2004.
Before: Is that Roy Buchanan? “A Change Is Gonna Come”? This has a real singing quality. The slide guy gets a great sound, like a human voice. Good bender. Usually you have to play really loud to get that tone. I can hear how much power is coming out of the amp. It’s not that blind guy out of Canada, is it? They’re not jazz musicians, that’s rock and roll technique, and that’s not an oxymoron. That’s hard to get; those sustains and that bending and the use of the wah-wah pedal. These are accomplished musicians in their genre. I wish I knew who it was.
After: Oh yeah, I heard them on NPR. That was really nice, man. It’s good that they’re keeping Sam Cooke stuff alive. The only change that can take place is from inside, because there’s no Abraham Lincoln on the horizon. Unfortunately.
3. Biréli Lagrène & Sylvain Luc
“Isn’t She Lovely” (from Duet, Dreyfus). Lagrène, Luc guitars. Recorded in 1999.
Before: It’s in the key of E. Oh, I like that song, “Isn’t She Lovely.” Nice phrasing on that melody. Bireli Lagrene? He and I had a terrible falling out and we haven’t spoken for 10 years. I know every note he’s ever played. He’s probably the best in the world at this. And he can imitate anybody on the guitar, or on the bass or singing. See there, that’s a technique he got from Jaco. I like this nylon string player. It’s a good chord progression and they’re able to put good be-bop lines in there and do the II-Vs. Both guys have great timing, great vocabulary. I was on tour with NHOP, Philip Catherine and Stephane Grappelli and we were in Bireli’s home town and he was 12 and said he’d like to play with Mr. Grappelli. He came into the room, and I’ll never forget this as long as I live. He was an awkward little kid and he sat down and played just like Django. I couldn’t believe it. That night he came up on stage to sit in with Stephane and he either borrowed my guitar or Philip’s. He played so hard that he broke strings. At the end of all that Stephane said, “We already have one Django, we don’t need another one.” [chuckle] But Bireli can play anything. I’ll tell you who’s a really good French guitar player now. Are you hip to Sylvain Luc? He’s amazing. He can play chords in lines. He knows where all the voices are. He’s like quantum-leap, Ted Green chord chemistry.
After: That was Sylvain? No shit! [looks at the CD] I love these guys. This is Bireli’s record? Very nice.
4. Yellowjackets featuring Mike Stern
“Country Living” (from Lifecycle, Heads Up). Russell Ferrante, piano, keyboards; Bob Mintzer, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Haslip, electric bass; Marcus Baylor, drums; Mike Stern, guitar. Released in 2008.
Before: It’s a solid body guitar and it’s a jazz player and he’s white, I think. That’s Mike. You know how much he practices? All the time. He plays his ass off and he’s so humble. I watch him grow from the crazy lifestyle that he had, and that I had also. I watch him grow into an outstanding human being. This might be Mike Brecker. No wait, it’s Bob Mintzer. He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met. Just listen to his big band arrangements. Mike’s done a good job coming out of working with Miles and getting a really good blend of rock and jazz. Oh man, I love the sound of the saxophone and guitar together. And I like the tune, it’s very contemporary. This kind of composing came out of the New York scene in the 70s and 80s, when people were writing changes and everything but they were going for different melodic content; more singable, less predictably be-bop but with content. The real intellectuals of our generation were the tenor players: Bob Mintzer, Jerry Bergonzi, Pat Labarbra, Dave Liebman and Mike Brecker. Frank Gambale and Mike Stern have one thing in common; they both transcribe Mike Brecker solos and learn ‘em.
Do horn solos adapt well to the guitar?
Not always. Pretty rough, actually.
What’s the challenge?
The intervals. Some of the intervals don’t lay very well. Try to play “Confirmation.”
After: Oh, the Yellowjackets with Mike Stern. That was a nice accident waiting to happen. That’s the kind of fusion that Miles got into with Tutu. That was a brilliant piece of music. But I was at Starbucks yesterday and I heard Miles’s solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and I almost lost it. Nobody can do that now.
5. John Scofield
“House of the Rising Sun” (from This Meets That. EmArcy). Scofield, guitar; Bill Frisell, tremelo guitar; Steve Swallow, electric bass; Bill Stewart, drums. Recorded in 2007.
Before: [hears the melody and laughs]. You’re kidding! That’s two guitar players. One of ‘em had a nice motive, using open strings like Gabor Szabo. Yeah! That’s Scofield. I love that phrase. I try to play that sometimes, I can’t do it. That’s a horn line; you got to have your strings really low to the neck to get that. It’s fourths and down a minor third. I heard him play “Gone With the Wind” in a tribute to Barney Kessel at Birdland a few years ago and it was the greatest solo I heard that year. He didn’t play one cliche. And I love his other stuff. Am I supposed to guess the other guitarist? It’s very country. Maybe it’s Bill Frisell? This is what we started with the Gary Burton Quartet, taking more country ideas and putting them into jazz. I remember driving across the country with the group and all we listened to was country music stations, and we tried to find a way to insert some of that vocabulary. And when Duster was made, even if I wasn’t on it I’d still say it was one of the best records ever made because of Gary, Steve and Roy. So that’s Scofield and Frisell. Those are great players. I’m curious who the drummer is. Is it Jack by any chance? Scofield is an unbelievable improviser and Frisell’s originality amazes me.
6. Lionel Loueke
“Seven Teens” (from Karibu, Blue Note). Loueke, guitar; Herbie Hancock, piano; Massimo Biolcati, bass; Ferenc Nemeth, drums. Recorded in 2007.
Before: This is in an odd time signature. Now they go to 3. That’s nice. Good piano player. The drummer’s got it down, man. I think it might be in 12, alternating 7 and 5. It’s hell for the average listener but, as a musician, I love it. It sure as hell isn’t John Pizzarelli. Is this the African guy with Herbie? It is? Everybody’s raving about him. I saw him but I don’t remember his name. Wayne Shorter told me about him. Yeah! Nice. That’s a Herbie chord. I wonder who the drummer was? Could have been Gene Jackson.
After: It’s different, it’s original. He sings his lines and they’re not diatonic lines. Hearing Africans playing African-American music, that’s part of the next phase of the music.
7. Kazumi Watanabe
“Emboss” (from Mo’ Bop III, EWE)/ Watanabe, guitars; Richard Bona, electric bass; Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, drums; Cyro Baptista, percussion. Recorded in 2006.
Before: This is great. Sounds Brazilian. Nice intervals. Nice reverb. This guy wants to be musical, original, he’s creating value. He knows his amp, knows his effects. Good octaves. Octaves are so hard to play. [listens more] Yeah! Nice with the octaves. Great use of digital effects. Was it just one player? He’s very good. I like that he’s using different intervals.
After: Kazumi! Oh, with Richard and El Negro. Actually, he can play my shit better than I can play it, though you don’t hear that on this. We met years ago, we did an acoustic thing together. Then we did a thing at the Bottom Line with Mike Maineri. Backstage he played for me all the shit I used to play from the early 70s. I used to be able to play really fast then. I can’t play that fast now.
8. Enver Izmaylov
“Sudak” (from Around The Black Sea, JRC). Izmaylov, guitars, vocal, percussion. Recorded in 2007.
Before: This is using a different technique. This is in 7. Is this Al Di Meola? It sure sounds like him. This is not jazz. It’s fusion. It borders on World Music. It’s excellent. 7 is the hardest to play in for me. I can play in 5 pretty good, 11 ok. 7, I’m working on it. And they’re using the A minor, G, Phrygian. That’s great. man. I love that. It sounds like he’s tapping. You get a different attack. It’s got that Stanley Jordan vibe. There was a guitar player in the 50s who used to represent Gretsch guitars named Jimmy Webster and he used that technique. He’d play chords with his left hand and tap with his right. This is really nice. It’s tight. I didn’t hear any improvisation in this.
After: I like seeing this coming out of that part of the world. It’s very important. That’s a great culture. I feel my music is enriched exponentially because of exposure to other cultures. I would like to play in Iraq. But the revolution has to take place inside each individual. I don’t think it’s possible with governments anymore because the power of oil overrides everything.
9. Pat Metheny
“Son of Thirteen” (from Day Trip, Nonesuch). Metheny, guitar; Christian McBride, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums. Recorded in 2005.
Before: [immediately] Is that Metheny? I don’t know the record but I know his sound. I try to avoid listening to him. There’re too many similarities. I wouldn’t want to play like him. Is this Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez? Well, Pat’s a consummate artist. He’s got a great touch, his playing is perfect and he’s a great composer. He’s playing this like a samba. Yeah, he was a child prodigy. Do you know [bassist] Brian Torff? Pat was at one of his camps when he was 12, or something. He had it together then, like Bireli Lagrene. Pat was teaching at Berklee about a week after he started going there.
After: [examines the cover] Nice artwork. You listen to his sound and then you go back to the very first thing you played by Tal Farlow and there’s a big difference. He’s a product of his generation. He uses a lot of reverb, a lot of processing. Did you ever hear his version of Giant Steps? He’s a superior musician. He’s wealthy, he’s done everything right, he didn’t make any mistakes with his career. It’s funny that he never calls Mark [Egan] and Paul [Wertico] for gigs. Christian McBride is a very good bass player.
10. Trio of Doom
“Dark Prince (Live)” (from Trio of Doom, Columbia Legacy). John McLaughlin, guitar; Jaco Pastorius, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1979.
Before: Yeah, work those cymbals. Tony Williams? Is this Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin? I know that’s John, I know that sound anywhere. I wonder who’s playing bass? Jaco? Is this from Cuba? Oh, I heard about that. That was a disaster. John was furious, he said Jaco behaved so badly. He’s trying to play like Coltrane. You take an interval, you work with it, vary it. It’s great. Yeah, Tony. Has this been released? They shouldn’t have done that. I remember when all those guys went down there. Eric Gale got the clap. Tony would have sued people. The sound isn’t great.
It appears that John authorized this.
I‘m surprised. It just sounds like they’re messing around. It doesn’t sound like they rehearsed. John was so mad at Jaco. He wasn’t all there, unfortunately. John and I were both influenced by Coltrane. I love the title Trio of Doom [laughter].
11. Joe Beck & John Abercrombie
“Israel” (from Coincidence, Whaling City Sound). Beck, Abercrombie, guitars. Recorded in 2007.
Before: “Israel.” Is that John Abercrombie? I know his playing anywhere. Joe Beck? Oh my god. Two of my very best friends, I’m gonna cry. Joe’s got cancer. I think he’s going to beat it, though. [Joe Beck died 4 months later] I moved to New York on Sept. 3, 1965 and the first night I went to see Charles Lloyd, ’cause I was a big fan of Gabor Szabo, and Joe Beck happened to sit right next to me. We ended up being the greatest and the best of friends. We made a beautiful record called Tributaries with John Scofield. I love two guitar records. [listens and is visibly moved] Yeah, Joe. Joe was always good with 6ths. He wrote a Diet Rite commercial in the mid-1960s and he made a lot of money and bought this apartment on Riverside Drive. Then he started having problems with his eyes and his most frequent visitor in the hospital was Miles Davis. This sounds beautiful. They’re listening to each other. It’s a great melody. Who doesn’t like that tune? Yeah man, great.
12. Nels Cline
“Recognize I” (from The Nels Cline Singers, Cryptogramophone). Cline, guitar; Devin Hoff, bass; Scott Amendola, drums. Recorded in 2007.
Before: A minor, nice harmonics. [listens intently] I hear somebody doing a lot of stuff I do on the acoustic: major 7th intervals, use of harmonics, not your standard normal voicings. See, that’s nice. Using the open strings as a dissonant agent. That’s a natural harmonic on either the 5th or the 6th. It’s very contemplative. It might even be European. It might have been Kurt Rosenwinkel, but I‘m not sure. Who is this?
After: Definitely white people music, which is not a bad thing. I’m very familiar with what he’s doing with the open strings and the harmonics. It’s intellectual but in an emotional way.
13. Steve Khan
“Where’s Mumphrey?” (from The Suitcase, Tone Center). Khan, guitar; Anthony Jackson, electric bass; Dennis Chambers, drums. Recorded in 1994, released 2008.
Before: Is that Billy Cobham? No, he wouldn’t play four beats on the bass drum like that. That’s a good drummer. Guitar player has a beautiful sound. Nice chord, that’s one of my favorite chords. Nice theme. That’s a major 7th with a sharp 5. It’s used with altered chords. [at the bridge] Nice. This is a very good musician. He knows his harmony. Yeah, I love those chords. Major and minor 7ths. Very tasty. If you can play the instrument your biggest danger is unconconsciously overplaying. I’m guilty of that. I’ve listened to myself on certain things and I ask why did I play so much? Leave more space. Bass player sounds really good. Is it the bass player’s gig? Yeah, nice intervals. Bass player is incredible. The guitarist knows bebop but he’s trying to play intelligent fusion. He’s really giving the bass player and the drummer a lot of leeway. Drummer is fantastic. Is that Dennis Chambers? Shit, how come Dennis Chambers doesn’t play with me? Who’s the bass player?
After: That’s Anthony? Fantastic! Oh Steve! My buddy. I haven’t heard him play in years. That’s great, man. I told you this guy is a good musician. That’s nice. I want to play with Dennis Chambers. You call his answering machine, you know what he says? “Can’t promise we’ll get back to you.” He’s like Christian McBride, working all the time, really in demand. That was really, really nice. I liked all of it. I was loving those chords that Steve was playing [laughter].
Of the things you heard today, which really moved you?
Tal Farlow for sure because he meant so much to me. I loved the thing with Bireli and Sylvain. I loved Lionel, that was great. And I loved Enver Izmailov, that was really some nice stuff. For sentimental reasons, I love Joe and John.
Name some records that changed your life?
Full House by Wes Montgomery, ’cause that had Cariba, S.O.S. and Come Rain Or Come Shine. Miles Smiles and Bohemia After Dark with Cannonball Adderley. People forget, Cannonball was unbelievable. Of recent stuff, there was a record of Bill Frisell with Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz and Dave Holland [Angel Song].
This interview was recorded on March 29, 2008. The piece originally appeared in JazzTimes. Photo by Larry Appelbaum