I had begun to write about my early years listening to another pillar of minimalism, Philip Glass, when word broke out on Facebook that Larry Coryell had died in his sleep after a show at Iridium, in NY — apparently of a heart attack.
For the most part, I’ve stayed away from writing about every single notable death during the past year — this would have been an obituary column otherwise. But Coryell cuts hauntingly close to my humble beginnings.
I had just started playing music when his album Spaces came out. Now he’s referred to as the Godfather of Fusion, and you know what? It’s kind of true. We wouldn’t have known that at the time, but with John McLaughlin, who followed close on his heels, he really stretched the boundaries. We were just hearing what they were doing and yow! Listen to “Rene’s Theme” (a duet with McLaughlin). That was the first time I had heard anything like that. What they demonstrated to us, a bunch of fledgling musicians, was how wide open the territory of music was. And now, going back and listening to his early music, Coryell was the widest open of them all.
McLaughlin, who most of us first saw at a hockey rink called the Spectrum touring with the Mahavishnu Orchestra (opening for T. Rex!), exuded an aura of unapproachability. Not Coryell. He played smaller venues, and hung out. His speed as a guitarist was awesome to us kids (who had a period of evaluating guitarists by how many notes per second one could play), but he seemed, somehow, one of us — only more so. Like us, but made good; like a big kid (he would turn 30 in this period).
Even his records were on smaller, more human-scale labels; mostly Vanguard back then. And something about them seemed kind of homegrown, too — like they were made up of the heads and improvs that we were learning to do. And we did. I won’t say we did a credible job of them, but they were, again, more approachable than the Mahavishnu tunes. From Spaces, to Barefoot Boy, to Offering, it was all achievable — sloppily, but nonetheless achievable.
But then came The Restful Mind, Coryell’s collaboration with three quarters of label mates Oregon — Ralph Towner, Glen Moore, and Colin Walcott. It was acoustic (more or less, but more than less), quieter, more meditative, and although most of quieted down around the same time, it leaped out so far ahead of us… and just when were getting halfway decent at where he had been.
Sort of made up of the same structures as his earlier records, head-and-solos, its 7 tracks have been haunting my inner ear for 43 years. I mean, all the time. I’ve never stopped listening to it, never felt finished with it. Sometimes it falls into lesser-rotation, sometimes more, but what album doesn’t? (even the Fabs, sometimes — amazingly enough).
When I pick up a guitar, I often play the opening of the first track, “Improvisation on Robert de Visee’s Menuet II”. And the album’s solo guitar version of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess” was my introduction to the piece.
It’s said the quality of a Coryell record is down to the quality of his fellow players. I find that to be true (actually, that’s true of us all). In my opinion, in my listening, it was never higher than on this set.
I went to see him doing acoustic guitar duets with Steve Khan in San Diego, oh, about 40 years ago. We talked afterwards, and he told me of his desire to do more albums like The Restful Mind — “It’s what people want from me, I think.” Of course, I encouraged it. It took him some years though, and the very special magic that came together on this particular record, he never returned to, as far as I’m aware. (And then Walcott died).
And now: Larry Coryell himself. I hope wherever he is, he has found his mind finally at rest.