Friday, February 20, 2004

I conceived this as a blog that wouldn't go on indefinitely, and I'm getting somewhat close to the end of what I wanted to do (best guess is that I'll wrap up in March or April, but it depends on a lot of things).

One person who I really wanted to make sure I get to is Larry Coryell, so today and Monday will be all about him.

He's a major jazz artist, but I'm tackling him from a rock perspective. Also, Larry Coryell is one of the most likely claimants to the title of "the guy who invented fusion" but I'm really hoping that the word "fusion" won't scare you away. Here's a one-minute snippet of Larry doing what I usually think of when I hear that word (from his Spaces album released in 1970). I'm not in a position to say if it's good or bad, but it's not something that appeals to me on a gut level. The songs I'm posting today don't resemble that clip much: they're much more in the rock spectrum of things. I'd say that early Can, Velvet Underground and early Chicago are more the frames of reference for the songs of his that I like the best. (If you've only heard later Chicago, be aware that their early records were very different, e.g. the noise-guitar solo piece on their first album.) I suppose that Jimi Hendrix is kind of an inevitable comparison, but I've never heard much similarity between their songwriting style, though the guitar sounds do have a resemblance.

Ok, I hope you're still here. Basically, I could have bought any of a large number of Larry Coryell albums as my first album of his, and in most cases I would have thought "hmm, not bad" and re-sold them. It's not that I dislike jazz, but hearing jazz for me is like being told a joke in French. I'll probably understand most of the words, and if someone explains it to me I'll realize that it's funny, but on a basic level it's likely to miss the mark. Luckily, the first record of his that I ever saw looked like this:

I should probably interject here that one of my rules of record shopping is that if you see a vinyl album that came out between 1968 and 1972 by a band/artist you've never heard of, and especially if the cover art is quirky, you buy it. I'm not saying that'll work 100% of the time, but it's got the best hit/miss ratio of any buying strategy that I'm aware of. And clearly, a naked family standing in a field on a 1969 release qualifies. [Most of Larry Coryell's early albums were reissued on CD not long ago in very cool mini LP sleeves, btw.]

Enough about me. Here's the first song from Coryell, called Sex. I love his rough singing (Allmusic makes all sorts of deprecating comments about his voice; I honestly have no idea what they're talking about). The things I like best are the way the bass and drums are so minimal, especially during the guitar solo. It reminds me a lot of the kind of thing Can were doing on Monster Movie, where the rhythm section sticks to small variations on a simple beat, with the bass using only a couple of notes. The rest of the album is good (jazz fans all apparently love The Jam With Albert) but I think that Sex is the song that belongs in any rock fan's collection.

Just prior to Coryell, Larry had released a record called Lady Coryell which sees him trying out all sorts of styles (including a somewhat dubious country western song called Love Child Is Coming Home). Again, though, there's one stand-out song for me: the title-track Lady Coryell. This is an instrumental, but it's really wonderful, and interesting all the way through. What I love best is the part (there's about 2:56 left in the song when it starts) where a noise guitar solo gets going and the song suddenly sounds almost exactly like European Son by the Velvet Underground.

On Monday I'll feature songs from his "pop" album, The Real Great Escape. Allmusic says:

A disappointment, this was Larry Coryell's attempt to move beyond the jazz audience into the pop/rock arena. Unfortunately, Coryell can't sing, though he gives it a valiant attempt on these songs. The band is augmented by horn charts on some of the tracks, Steve Marcus plays a couple of smoking sax solos, and there are glimpses of Coryell's guitar ability, but the music isn't very good. The Real Great Escape kinda sounds like Dreams, another band of jazzers whose foray into rock didn't work very well. It should be skipped by all but the Coryell completist. It is surely an album the guitarist himself would just as soon forget.

I'll find out if you agree next week, but my own opinion is that they're severely mistaken and that it's, in fact, an absolutely fantastic album. (I don't trust anyone who uses the phrase "smoking sax solos" to write about a rock/pop record.)

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