Larry Coryell, a guitarist of spectacular technique who defied and redefined musical boundaries as a leader of the movement fusing jazz and rock in the late 1960s and 1970s, died Feb. 19 at a hotel in Manhattan. He was 73.
Coryell, who lived in Orlando, was performing at the Iridium jazz club on the weekend of his death. The cause was complications from arteriosclerosis, said his wife, singer-songwriter Tracey Piergross.
For a half-century, Coryell was a much-in-demand sideman and leader. He was heralded on the cover of Downbeat magazine at 24 and had attracted a following ever since in a career marked by jaw-dropping range, including opera compositions.
He forged his reputation on the musical vanguard in the late 1960s with a run of albums such as “Coryell” and “Spaces,” which were regarded as milestones in jazz fusion. They embraced the psychedelic rock experimentation popularized by the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and helped set the groundwork for Miles Davis’ popular jazz-fusion album “Bitches Brew” (1970) and such bands as Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
One of Coryell’s groups was called the Free Spirits, a testament to the energetic abandon and tasteful distortion he brought to jazz. He helped usher in a revolution in the musical form, which had not undergone such a jolt since the beboppers of the 1940s made the big bands seem passe. In 1969, New Yorker magazine jazz critic Whitney Balliett proclaimed him “without question the most inventive and original guitarist to appear since Charlie Christian,” the improvisational electric guitarist of the 1940s.
Guitarist Al Di Meola, one of Coryell’s admirers, dubbed him “the godfather of fusion,” a movement that helped make jazz more commercial after the British rock invasion.
As much as he helped bring fusion into the mainstream – to the dismay of jazz purists – Coryell’s prolific recording career encompassed a far wider cut of the musical pie. He initially drew attention for his jagged, amped-up electric guitar experiments, but he was deeply schooled in the work of Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel and Johnny Smith, straight-ahead jazz guitarists of exquisite, understated skill. Coryell also spent years following in their melodic acoustic footsteps, a world away from his work with fusion.
He toured in the mid-1980s with fellow guitarists Farlow, John Abercrombie, Larry Carlton and John Scofield for the popular Jazzvisions concert series. Over the years, he teamed with musicians including jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Belgian jazz guitarist Philip Catherine and Brazilian composer and singer Dorival Caymmi. He also recorded demanding works by Igor Stravinsky, including “The Rite of Spring” and “The Firebird,” as well as classical Indian music.
Lorenz Albert Van Delinder III was born in Galveston, Texas, on April 2, 1943, and was deaf in his right ear. His father, whom he later described as “a musician who chased a lot of women,” abandoned the family. He grew up in Richland, Washington, with his mother and stepfather, a chemical engineer who adopted him and gave him the surname Coryell.
He sang in the local Presbyterian Church choir, picked up ukulele at 12 and became enamored of rock guitar in his teens, mimicking Chuck Berry and Chet Atkins. He told People magazine that he was the “black sheep” of his family, running away at 16 to join a rock band and getting a girlfriend named Georgia pregnant; she gave the baby up for adoption.
He enrolled at the University of Washington, studying journalism in case his musical prospects cratered. He wound up playing backup to such stars as Roy Orbison and Bobby Vee and decided to quit college in 1965. He moved across the country to make his name in New York City nightclubs.
His confidence was rewarded. Within months, he was a playing and recording as a member of Chico Hamilton’s chamber jazz band. He was also showcased on several albums with vibraphonist Gary Burton, notably the early fusion LP “Duster” (1967), and on jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s album “Memphis Underground” (1968), another bold riposte to jazz purism with its use of a Southern R&B section.
Coryell, who also played dates with Davis and fellow jazz giant Thelonious Monk, formed a succession of jazz-rock bands, including Foreplay and Eleventh House, that were popular attractions. But he said his “chameleonlike” tastes for music, from electric to unplugged, from the avant-garde to the traditional, undermined his commercial prospects in a marketplace that valued consistency.
Meanwhile, his finances plummeted because of his decadent lifestyle, an indulgence in the drug-and sex-experimentation counterculture that he once called his “orgy stage.” He had ready access to heroin, LSD, cocaine and alcohol. “I was a hurtin’ buckaroo,” he told the publication Canadian Christianity.
He completed rehab in 1981 and became a disciple of Nichiren Buddhism, which involves chanting.
Coryell’s eclectic career continued apace even in his most desperate years, working variously with jazz-rock guitarist John McLaughlin, flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía, bassist Charles Mingus and pianist Cedar Walton. In search of musical chemistry, he also made a point to seek out younger artists, from guitarist Emily Remler (who died of an apparent drug overdose in 1990 at 32) to pianist Cyrus Chestnut.
“That sort of youth rekindles the enthusiasm, the drive, in me,” Coryell told the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1989. “It forces me to focus my energies on what needs to be accomplished. The challenge is to really focus and strive to go beyond what you’ve done before.”
In 2007, Coryell published a memoir, “Improvising: My Life in Music.”
His marriages to Julie Nathanson, an author and singer who once managed his career, and Molly Schueler ended in divorce.
Besides Piergross, his wife of nine years, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, musicians Murali Coryell of Boiceville, New York, and Julian Coryell of Los Angeles; a daughter from his second marriage, Allegra Coryell of Brooklyn, New York; a daughter from a relationship, Annie White of Arvada, Colorado; a half brother; a half sister; and six grandsons.
Coryell remained creatively restless over the past three decades, reinventing himself through periods immersed in bebop and smooth jazz. He wrote operas based on works by Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce. His “War and Peace,” he once said, bore such disparate influences as Hendrix and Maurice Ravel.
“My whole life,” he once said, “has been going and listening to great musicians and try to take something from it without copying.”