Passing Masters of Jazz: Arthur Blythe and Larry Coryell

Jazz long ago lost its early geniuses of swing and bebop. Now masters from the '70s and onward are starting to pass, too. Remembering Arthur Blythe and Larry Coryell.

When it comes to the sad loss of musical heroes, was 2016 worse than previous years? I doubt it. Is social media making the deaths of giants like Prince that much more painful, that much more collectively felt? I suspect so.

Likely, what’s happening is simply age catching up to the wave of musicians who changed so many lives during the rock and soul era that began in the ’50s. Chuck Berry was not a young man. Time does its dirty work. But who can blame anyone for aching at the loss of someone like David Bowie, whose new work was still so vibrant?

Sadly, jazz lost its wave of early giants long ago. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington died in the ’70s. The greats of bop are gone — not just Charlie Parker at an early age but also the elder spokespeople of bop like Dizzy Gillespie (1993), Ella Fitzgerald (1996), and Max Roach (2007). The giants who followed them are either gone (Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver) or quite elderly (Sonny Rollins).

And now, as with rock, jazz is losing some of the generation that made a huge impact after the ’60s. It’s hard to accept because that music still seems relatively new — still young and fresh and defiant. But the truth is that those innovations are 50 years old.

Here are two artists I grew up with, folks we lost too young and whom I’ll still be thinking about when 2017 ends. Like all the musicians of their era, they thrived because they were adaptable, playing in varying contexts as the market for straight-ahead jazz vanished. They both reached the top of the game, commercially, and then retreated from the spotlight because that’s what creativity (or health) required.

Saxophonist Arthur Blythe

Arthur Blythe played the alto saxophone with a fierceness and urgency that belies the instrument’s reputation. Alto players, of course, could be hard-edged. Charlie Parker was nothing if not aggressive in his approach. But even he had a lightness and sweetness that came with the horn. Other players like Cannonball Adderey gave the instrument its bluesy feeling. Still others played it with watercolor beauty: Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz are two.

Blythe knew all that history, but his sound was shot through with fireworks. His tone was rich but steeped in rasp and smoke. His sound, however, wasn’t a growl for effect but a genuine shout of freedom and joy and pain all at once. He played with a freedom that included both the avant-garde harmonic tradition and all the consonant stuff, too.

Known as “Black Arthur”, Blythe had a presence and approach that always seemed tough and daring. “Dark” would not be the worst descriptor.

Blythe was from Los Angeles. Jazz, like hip-hop, long perpetuated an East Coast / West Coast rivalry that held that the California players were slicker or softer, less intense. But in the ’60s, the new jazz was springing up everywhere, and only a decade earlier the music of Ornate Coleman had come out of L.A. Blythe hooked up with Horace Tapscott and his Underground Musicians and Artists Association, making his first record in Tapscott’s The Giant Is Awakened.

But New York beckoned. Just as so many before him from Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles moved east, so did Blythe. Other veterans of the Tapscott band would make their mark there: David Murray, Butch Morris, and Stanley Crouch, for example. In New York, he connected quickly to some important bands: The Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1975, the Gil Evans Orchestra, and then those of trumpeter Lester Bowie, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and pianist McCoy Tyner.

By 1977, Blythe was already recording as a leader on the vital independent label India Navigation. His debut, 1977’s The Grip (and its successor), showcased one of Blythe’s distinctive traits beyond his acidic tone: unusual instrumentation. He used tuba player Bob Stewart rather than a bass player and cellist Abdul Wadud, alongside drums and trumpet. Later, this group would replace the trumpet with electric guitar, though neither a traditional guitarist nor a “fusion” guitarist as was popular at the time.

Blythe was talented and distinctive, but it was still a real surprise when the biggest record label in the world, Columbia, signed him and put out nine of his records — some truly sublime and others merely very good — over the next decade. The first, In the Tradition (1979), might have been seen as a watering down of his voice because it included four jazz standards (Ellington, Waller, Coltrane) played by a traditional quartet with piano, bass, and drums supporting the leader. But the bass and drums were Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall, the rhythm section from Henry Threadgill’s wondrous and free band, Air. Blythe was playing it safe only on the surface.

The playing on the major label debut was arguably the start (at least at this level of exposure) of a critical movement in jazz. Before 1978, it seemed that jazz was always engaged in a partisan battle between “the tradition” and whatever was hustling to be next. No less an authority than Louis Armstrong derisively called bebop “Chinese music” and separate from jazz. Then the boppers had no love for the free jazz of the ’60s.

With In the Tradition, the biggest label in jazz, Miles Davis’s home, endorsed a new approach. Blythe’s approach said: I’m schooled in both tradition and freedom, and I see them as interchangeable in the history of the music. You listened to this record and some old fences toppled, you realized that the great ones didn’t honor the divide (even if they talked about it) — Ellington, Mingus, Miles, Pops, Bird, whoever they were, they were all revolutionaries and they were all founding fathers. You had to be both.

Records by other artists like In the Tradition would follow (I always like to cite the title of Chico Freeman’s The Outside Within as shorthand for this movement), but even so, Blythe was ahead of his time. The ’80s would bring back a gulf between Wynton Marsalis-symboled neo-traditionalism and the free exponents of jazz (whether avant-garde, funky, or both), and it would take another decade after that for Blythe’s contemporaries and musical children to become the jazz mainstream. In that sense, then, Blythe’s daring form of “tradition” is one of the father’s of today’s scene.

(For my money, the Blythe-iest of contemporary alto saxophonists, or saxophonists in general, is the brilliant Darius Jones — he’s both grounded in yesterday and reaching for tomorrow at once.)

So how amazing is it, then, that Blythe would follow a five-star tradition-oriented debut with the coolest, funkiest, and most joyously liberated recording of the ’70s? Lenox Avenue Breakdown (1979) brought back the strutting parade groove of Bob Stewart’s tuba, placed the most grooving drummer in jazz at the core in Jack DeJohnette, then added jazz’s answer to Jimi Hendrix on guitar in James “Blood” Ulmer. Consisting of only four tracks, this recording of probing jams also had the audacity to pair Blythe’s alto with the rich tone of James Newton’s flute. Newton, who’d also been recording for India Navigation and also had West Coast roots, matched Blythe with incredible lyricism, and those two sounds together, boosted by the rumble of tuba and amplified guitar, remain an elusive target. I’ve never heard another record sound that fresh.

Over seven more records on Columbia, Blythe worked mostly with his cello/guitar/tuba group, fashioning refractions on jazz that could have come from no one else. For me, the coolest was his recoding of Thelonious Monk tunes from 1983. Light Blue came during a time when plenty of artists were reinterpreting Monk, but no one had a take that was so unique and yet so well-matched to off-kilter phrasing and groove that defined the composer. Blythe’s approach reminded you that Monk’s music had a dancing quality to it, one that strutted and stumbled and was funky. Tuba Monk! Blythe always had some Congo Square in his approach though he wasn’t from New Orleans.

The last 20 years were not as productive for Black Arthur. There were fine records after his Columbia run, and I’ll never forget the night I saw him in D.C.’s storied One Step Down with a local rhythm section, still burning like a live volcano when he wasn’t caressing a ballad like he was Coleman Hawkins. But Parkinson’s Disease seemed to cause problems for his blowing, and he would not have the productive late career of folks like Konitz and Oliver Lake. For a while he breathed new life into the World Saxophone Quartet, playing alongside Lake and David Murray after the brilliant Julius Hemphill passed. But Blythe’s heyday was done.

His death in 2017 still stings, however. It reminds us how the jazz world might have been without his creativity at the center for so long.

Guitarist Larry Coryell

Larry Coryell was in some ways a more conventional figure of the ’70s. He was educated at Mannes School of Music in New York — an early example of how music education was turning rock ‘n’ roll teenagers into schooled-up jazz cats. By the mid-’60s, he was the critical guitarist in the quartet of Gary Burton, the vibes player who did early work in using electric guitar to build a “fusion” sound that mixed jazz with American popular music of the ’60s.

Coryell was born in Galveston, Texas, and he grew up in the Seattle area, where he played in rock bands like the hot-shot axe-slinger he was. His generation (he was three years younger than Blythe, born in 1943, an early Baby Boomer) naturally explored rock, folk, spiritual yearning, and you can hear all of that in his early records. It’s notable that he was recording for the Vanguard label to some crunchy but excellent music, including the music of Oregon (a spin-off of The Paul Winter Consort), who essentially formed the band behind him on The Restful Mind from 1974. He was also singing (quite credibly, though critical opinion is split on this) on his early records, forging a sound that included players like Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey and presaged some of the indie-rock that would come along 20 years later.

When it was time for Coryell to make his mark, he was already a voice in the music that would define “fusion” in the early ’70s. But if ever there was a jazz-rock player who has full deniability on clearing the path for “smooth jazz” as it would curdle and treacle in the ’80s, it’s Coryell. His first great record was 1970’s Spaces, a take-no-prisoners power guitar album that also had a sensitive side. On four tracks, Coryell faces off with fellow guitarist John McLaughlin, and the rhythm section is made up of Miroslav Vitous (from Weather Report) and Billy Cobham (from McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. One track adds Chick Corea on Fender Rhodes electric piano. Rich in truly feeling improvisation, Spaces demonstrated that electric instruments could reach for emotion as well as power.

Commercial success came his way more clearly when he formed his band The Eleventh House. With Alfonse Mouzon on drums, Mike Mandel on keys, and Randy Brecker (and later Mike Lawrence) on trumpet, this was a band every bit as interesting as the groups being let by Corea (Return to Forever, 1972) and McLaughlin. In many ways it was superior: less likely to shift into bombast and more playful. “Birdfingers”, the first track on Introducing Eleventh House with Larry Coryell (1974), begins with Mouzon ripping out a light and jazzy intro that gives way to super-complex traded arpeggios between guitar and trumpet/Rhodes. The soloists then trade bars of 11/8 time. Other tunes are more funky or conventional or even pastoral, but it’s all presented with a rich array of melody and blues.

Cornell, at this time, was a sufficiently imposing figure on guitar — and a sufficiently authentic peer of Hendrix — that Miles Davis started a recording project with him during his five years of silence and “exile” in his Upper West Side townhouse. The recording below, which is mostly Coryell and not much Miles, is arguably the tape that was being chased and worried over in the (significantly fictional) Miles Ahead film made by Don Cheadle a few years ago. But here it is: Coryell, who was often called “The Godfather of Fusion”, playing with the guy who was certainly fusion’s father figure extraordinaire.

But fusion was just one phase for Coryell, if one he would return to with some regularity. More often, starting in the late ’70s, he played acoustic guitar with technique and fascination. He made duet albums with many guitarists: Philip Catherine (1977’s Twin-House is a keeper), Steve Khan (I love 1976’s Two for the Road), Emily Remler (Together from 1985), and also with violinist Michael Urbaniak and pianist Kenny Drew, Jr.

Coryell was, in fact, prolific despite problems with drugs. How many albums did he record? I count almost 100, and you include sideman appearances… forget about it. He covered the jazz waterfront: standards/originals, acoustic/electric, solo/duo/trio/bands, bop/rock, even a few operas. And throughout it all, Coryell maintained his voice. Some of the other fusion pioneers had a clear voice in one area and were merely a competent player in other styles. Cornell had the same swagger across all his contexts.

In his playing, you can hear Chuck Berry and Wes Montgomery in equal measure — and you can hear the future, too. Maybe because he had a pop element to his playing, he was rarely seen as being in the same league as daring guitarists such as Sonny Sharrock, James Ulmer, or even Vernon Reid. In fact, his playing had much in common with those thrilling axe artists. As he aged, he seemed to lose nothing other than the sense that he was in the vanguard.

Remarkably, Coryell was as active in year prior to his death as ever. Specifically, he had reunited The Eleventh House and recorded a new album with the band, yet to be released. The band lost Mouzon last year, but they were still playing, and he died in his New York hotel room on a Sunday after playing shows at Iridium the prior two days. He was 73, which isn’t all that old these days. There was, and is, literally more music on the way.

Rest in peace, Arthur and Larry. Your music lives on.