I remember crawling over to Slugs on winter nights during the '60s to trade in my bop conscience for something more contemporary. Once in a while I found Larry Coryell there fracturing the blues with a space guitar that seemed to command Clapton and Coltrane all at once. Coryell also commanded a cult following then, mostly touseled and horn-rimmed student types like himself who were convinced that jazz chops could blaze a path to rock vistas undreamt of by the Townshends and Pages. The release of three albums by Coryell during the last few months (Vanguard's "Essential Larry Coryell," a retrospective double LP; "The Restful Mind" with Ralph Towner and Oregon; Arista's "Level One" with the Eleventh House) makes it a good time to reconsider this one-time local wizard and to see what his music is like now that time has robbed most '60s heroes of their glow.
Coryell appealed to us then because he shared our impatience with what we took to be complacent moods. We wanted to hear somebody rip those cool bop and r&b grooves to pieces, and Larry presented an unending supply of little dramas in which Sincerity and Vision conquered Swing and Funk. Now we realize that a foot-stomping groove is a hard thing to put down. Besides, Sincerity and Vision have died as concepts and as handles on reality. So we're left with the embarrassing paradox that honesty is probably the most notorious pose of all.
The Vanguard twofer documents the period following Coryell's legendary first band, the Free Spirits, a time spent gigging mostly with saxophonist Steve Marcus and recording with everybody from Elvin Jones and John McLaughlin to Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey. The array of sidemen testifies to the quantity of grooves that Coryell has straddled throughout his career, though it signifies on the darker side an ambivalence that sometimes borders on plain confusion.
Coryell's standard strategy as a songwriter and a soloist lies in the ritual slaughter of a conventional mood, an assassination sanctioned, even sanctified, by what we used to think was its resemblance to Coltrane or Dolphy's systematic deconstruction of bop settings, their way of phrasing behind the beat or playing around the rhythm rather than within it. We were, it turns out, wrong in our willingness to make the comparison. Now Coryell's stuff sounds like pure technical pride with little wisdom and lots of nervousness about where the center may be. Blues feeling alternates measure for measure with something so perverse that it defies description. Of course, next to Ralph Towner and Oregon, he comes off sounding like Albert King.
With the formation of the Eleventh House just under two years ago, Coryell seemed to have found what he'd been looking for throughout those years of conflict and doubt. The band was a knockout live, a bristling dynamo of superfunk pyrotechnics that harnessed metal, blues, and real jazz articulation all at once. The alliance of moods, though, was so short-lived that Coryell was back to raw nerves within a few months, helped along by concert halls full of luded punks (the old cultists were at the movies now) who drooled for trash guitar and pelvic thrusts. Larry gave them what they wanted, and began to sound like somebody who'd never even heard of his own touted heroes, mellow luminaries like Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, and, of course, Django Reinhardt.
The ironies redounded with particular vengeance a few Mondays ago at the Village Gate when Coryell and the Eleventh House smashed their way through a first set that resembled nothing as much as psychedelic nostalgia. Though the second show witnessed a Coryell more exciting than the one who snores on the new Eleventh House LP, Coryell's success was due largely to a British blues manner that nothing in his history could be said to presage. Ironies even more outrageous emerged when Coryell's conversation turned to his favorite current theme, something he calls "creative regression." "You've got to go backwards," he said, " in order to go forward. You've got to go back and listen to the guys who turned you on to playing in the first place - Bird, Diz, Miles, Wes, Trane."
All this is fine, of course, except for the obvious fact that Coryell himself doesn't seem to be doing it. As it turns out, "creative regression" goes a long way to explain why a new jazz idiom is happening now for the first time seriously since Coltrane. But it serves Coryell only as an ironic, and largely unwitting, self-commentary.
Originally published in The Village Voice, December 15, 1975