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Farewell, Larry Coryell

On February 19, the world lost a jazz legend. He was often called the ‘pioneer of jazz-rock fusion’, and brimmed with charisma and ideas in whatever he did. His name was Larry Coryell and the jazz guitarist gave new meaning to the term ‘distinct personality’. It was evident in the way he talked, whirled his eyes or even moved his hands. The musician could pass off as a mathematician or scientist, ready to crack a new formula or invent a product.

Cut back to the only time I interviewed him, at the Ambassador Hotel in Churchgate, on November 30, 2003. He had just played with the group Sangam at the Nehru Centre, Worli, a few days go. I remember his words, “Once Ronu gets going, he can please all the gods.” Coryell was talking about flautist Ronu Majumdar. The show had also featured saxophonist George Brooks and tabla player Vijay Ghate. Memorably, Coryell had presented his understanding of Indian classical music by using phrases from ragas Jog, Hansadhwani and Puriya Dhanashri in the tunes ‘Jog Jazz’, ‘Song Of The Swan’ and ‘Frame Master’. The meeting lasted an hour, over omelette sandwiches and coffee, but each minute remains etched in my mind. His voice danced with drama and emotion, and he would alternately swing between extreme happiness and childlike grumpiness. ‘Buddy’, ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Charlie’ were regular terms of address.

Creating a new sound

Much has been written about the guitarist’s late 1960s efforts in the fusion space; most notably adding rock, blues and country influences to old-school be-bop, and free and cool jazz. Coryell’s early recordings with vibraphonist Gary Burton were a step in creating a new sound, much before Miles Davis’s landmark 1970 album Bitches Brew. His albums Lady Coryell (1968), Coryell (1969) and Spaces (1970) were milestones.

Indirectly, he had a role to play in early Indo-jazz fusion. While legendary saxophonist John Coltrane had already been influenced by Indian music, Coryell played the sitar on some songs of his band The Free Spirits in 1966, and kept adding Indian elements later. Saxophonist Charles Lloyd was another early collaborator with Indian artistes.

Indo-fusion became hugely popular with guitarist John McLaughin’s Shakti in the mid-1970s. Jazz musicians like trumpeter Don Cherry, and saxophonists Charlie Mariano and John Handy incorporated Indian melodies too. By a stroke of chance, Coryell got to play with Shakti in 1982, in place of McLaughlin who had suffered an injury. “It wasn’t an easy task to pick up such beautifully intense music at such short notice, but I did my best,” he recalled.

Like McLaughlin, Coryell had a strong connect with Indian music, collaborating with flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia on the album Music Without Boundaries (2006), Majumdar on Moonlight Whispers (1999) and violinist L. Subramaniam on From The Ashes (1999), and with violinist L. Shankar and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain on the epic piece ‘I Want You’.

Music and spirituality

But Coryell’s Indian connect was not restricted to music, it extended to his spirituality and philosophy too. In the late 1960s, he became a follower of guru Sri Chinmoy, who also guided McLaughlin and guitarist Carlos Santana. However, he later plunged into the world of drugs and alcohol, something which affected his music.

Famously, he had to quit the guitar trio formed with McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia. Coryell did clean up his act and took to Buddhism later. And all those years ago in 2003, this is where our conversation steered. Coryell talked about Gautama Buddha and Emperor Ashoka, besides Rabindranath Tagore and Vivekananda. And he would have loved to go on, but a rehearsal was due.

But before he left, Coryell patiently autographed my CD: “To Narendra, best wishes to you and always be happy, my friend.” He followed it up with short avuncular tips on how to find meaning in life. Unfortunately, we never got to interact again.

The author is a freelance music writer

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 7:15:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/farewell-larry-coryell/article17356551.ece

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