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Guitarist Larry Coryell, Godfather Of Fusion, Dies At 73

Feb 20, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 9:09 pm

Larry Coryell, the jazz guitarist known as the "Godfather of Fusion," died Sunday night at a hotel in New York City, according to his publicist. He was 73.

Coryell was still performing more than 50 years after his first recordings. He played at New York jazz club Iridium on Friday and Saturday nights, and had plans for a summer tour with his fusion group The Eleventh House.

Coryell's recordings in the late 1960s — first with his band the Free Spirits, then with the Gary Burton Quartet and finally as a bandleader — predicted the rise of jazz-rock fusion and contributed to the sonic evolution of the genre. It's no wonder that snippets of his work were sampled by renowned producers, including J Dilla and DJ Shadow.

On the NPR program Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, Dr. Taylor described Coryell as such: "[Larry] plays all the styles: Latin, jazz-rock, straight-ahead jazz, European classical music. You name it, he's a master of it."

In 1970, after two records under his own name, Coryell recorded the groundbreaking fusion album Spaces. The project featured fellow guitarist John McLaughlin, pianist Chick Corea on keyboards, bassist Miroslav Vitouš on bass and drummer Billy Cobham.

The guitarist's '70s output totaled more than 20 albums as either a leader or co-leader. Coryell briefly worked with McLaughlin in The Guitar Trio in 1979, but was replaced after a year by Al Di Meola due to a drug addiction.

Despite a decline in critical attention, Coryell remained remarkably productive through the 1980s and beyond. He performed on more than 100 albums, and was due to release an Eleventh House record in June of this year.

"I think there's a basic human need to express to other people," Coryell told University of Washington Television in 1987. "And as soon as I discovered that I had the ability to learn to play some of this stuff that I revered ... I consciously, or unconsciously, set my sights on that."

Coryell leaves behind his wife, Tracey, daughters Annie and Allegra, sons Murali and Julian and six grandchildren.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Though it might be hard to imagine today, there was a time when jazz was a staple of Top 40 radio. Think Dave Brubeck or Ramsey Lewis. By the mid-1960s, rock was taking over, and that's when a young guitarist named Larry Coryell figured out how to do both. Coryell helped pioneer jazz rock fusion and recorded more than 60 albums. He died Sunday in New York of natural causes at the age of 73. As NPR's Tom Cole says, Coryell's talents went far beyond the genre for which he was best known.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Larry Coryell was a lifelong student of music. In interviews, he could play other musicians' solos off the top of his head. Born in Texas, he grew up in Seattle where he listened to country music. But it was his ability to play the blues that got him noticed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICO HAMILTON SONG, "LARRY OF ARABIA")

COLE: That's a 23-year-old Coryell from his recorded debut with drummer Chico Hamilton's group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY CORYELL: Blues is the basis of all jazz music.

COLE: And that's Coryell from a 1987 interview with University of Washington public TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORYELL: Blues is the essence, I believe, of America's contribution. Blues is also the basis for all rock 'n' roll music.

COLE: Coryell managed to combine rock, jazz, blues and country into a sharp-edged sound that put him at the forefront of a new musical movement, a movement that pitted the propulsive drumming of rock with electrified jazz improvisation.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY CORYELL SONG, "SPACES - INFINITE")

COLE: Though fusion fans loved Coryell for playing fast and loud, the guitarist could play just about anything. He loved classical music, everything from Webern to Ravel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY CORYELL PERFORMANCE OF RAVEL'S "PAVANE DE LA BELLE AU BOIS DORMANT")

COLE: He told Guitar Player magazine in 1974 that, quote, "my calling on this planet is to be a searcher in search of something new." And he was eager to share what he found with listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORYELL: I think there's a basic human need to express to other people. And as soon as I discovered that I had the ability to learn to play some of the stuff that I revered and didn't know if I could do it or not, I consciously or unconsciously set my sights that.

COLE: Larry Coryell kept at it right up to the end, performing at a club in New York City the night before he died. Tom Cole, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LARRY CORYELL SONG, "THEME FOR ERNIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.