Larry Coryell is one of those rock and roll legends that most people under 35 have never heard of. A pioneer in the genres of jazz rock, fusion, and experimental free guitar, Coryell has worked with some of the most legendary musicians of the second half of the century. His method of combining rock guitar with a solid jazz sensibility broke new ground in the ‘60s when he played with such outfits as Chico Hamilton’s jazz quintet and early jazz-rock band, the Free Spirits as well as his own band, the Eleventh House. He continued to innovate into the ‘70s when he turned acoustic and released a slew albums that featured his virtuoso guitar compositions, playing alongside such rock heavies as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Paco de Lucia, and Pat Metheny. For the last 20-odd years, Larry Coryell has kept on trying to improve his craft, turning in yet another different direction, playing straight-up, unadorned jazz, with occasional pauses to pursue idiosyncratic side projects such as avant garde renderings of traditional Stravinsky and Ravel compositions.
Coryell’s latest record which was released earlier this month on Favored Nations Entertainment is entitled Tricycles . It focuses on work that he has done with his current trio which includes longtime Pat Metheny collaborator Mark Egan on fretless bass and Paul Wertico on drums. While the recordings do not depart substantially from much of his recent work, the record offers a few new compositions and new insight on some of his earlier work, as well as the work of such greats as Thelonious Monk and the Beatles.
The first song on the record is called “Immer Geradeaus” which translates roughly to “always straight ahead” in German. This is a fitting title to the tune because the Mark Egan’s roving bass line does just that. It slowly moves ahead in a steady walking pace while Coryell’s guitar moves up and down the jazz scale and Paul Wertico keeps time with generous use of the ride cymbal. The next song “Dragon Gate” revisits some of Coryell’s previous work, taking the same title as an album he released in 1989 and also featured on Spaces Revisited released in 1997. The song takes the form of a kind of complex free jazz call and response between Wertico and Coryell, with Coryell taking the lead and Egan holding the composition together with his muted bass. The song becomes more cohesive as it progresses, and climaxes nicely towards the end when Coryell ceases to roam up and down the guitar neck, strumming fiercely with the occasional pause to make room for Wertico’s virtuoso drum fills.
“Good Citizen Swallow” is another reprise of a song that has appeared not once, but twice in Coryell’s discography. It was first recorded when Coryell played with the Gary Burton quartet and laid down again on Coryell’s solo record, Coming Home. On this particular version of the song, what stands out is the interplay between the myriad of rock and jazz styles that are touched upon in Coryell’s guitar ramblings. One can discern the influence of Jerry Garcia in some of the sweetly twangy rock lines, but the song gives equal time to the rough pounding of jazz chords and Wertico’s three-count hi hat gives the composition the feel of a somewhat adulterated standard. Oddly, the title track, “Tricycles” is a low point on the record, languishing too long in reverb laden strumming in a discordant minor key and never really regaining momentum. “Stable Fantasy” which follows, is similarly unremarkable,
The record picks up substantially with the remarkable “Spaces Revisited” which opens up with a stellar drum solo by Wertico which could almost stand on its own two feet if the entrance of Egan and Coryell wasn’t so perfectly timed and executed. The song maintains a sustained energy as if each line was its own crescendo. The song provided the title track for an album Coryell released in 1997 and it’s no-holds-barred compositional structure provides ample opportunity for the musicians to improve upon the tune. Coryell’s reverence for fellow innovator Thelonious Monk is clear, both in his unconventional approach to traditional jazz and by the fact that he performs renditions of two of his songs, “Round Midnight” and “Well You Needn’t” . Unfortunately, this reverence does not go as far as to improve on these already near-perfect songs. Though Egan’s somber bass and Wertico’s brush-drumming create the shadowy atmosphere appropriate to the “Round Midnight”, Coryell’s noodling guitar tends to distract from the song’s dark simplicity. “Well You Needn’t” fares much better, with unison bass and guitar providing a compelling rendition, if not stellar, rendition of Monk’s haunting melody. The final track on the record, a take on the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” is fittingly sweet, displaying Coryell’s remarkable adroitness on a perfectly amplified acoustic guitar. It sounds so good, in fact, that it almost makes one regret the fact that it is the only song of its kind on the record.
While the now 61-year old Coryell does not make any substantially new revelations on Tricycles in terms of composition, the records does much to showcase the kind of fine tuning that comes when a musician’s skills are relentlessly improved upon.