Larry Coryell is shown here with his No. 1, a 1967 Gibson Super 400 he’s had since the late ’60s. He acquired it from Gibson after his first Super 400 was stolen. “I was told that it was stolen by members of the Velvet Underground,” Coryell says.
In 1965, the jazz guitarist Larry Coryell quit journalism school and moved to New York City to establish himself as a professional musician. This might have been a dicey proposition in such a cutthroat environment—one of the world’s great music cities—but within a year Coryell was flourishing, working with some of the biggest names in jazz, like the drummer Chico Hamilton and the vibraphonist Gary Burton.
Throughout the late 1960s and the ’70s, Coryell was one of the most prominent voices in fusion. He merged rock and avant-garde tendencies with jazz improvisation—first in the band the Free Spirits and then in the Eleventh House. Coryell recorded a game-changing solo album, Barefoot Boy, in 1971 at Electric Lady Studios. The influence of the studio’s founder—Jimi Hendrix, who had died the year before—is apparent in the experimental way Coryell approached the guitar on that recording, both sonically and conceptually.
Forty-five years later, Coryell revisits this heady period in a new album, Barefoot Man: Sanpaku, with pianist Lynne Arriale, bassist John Lee, saxophonist and flautist Dan Jordan, and drummer Lee Pierson. Coryell, now 73, might not be the young whippersnapper he was in 1971, but it’s clear from listening to the album he’s no less fiery and energetic as a guitarist and improviser.
A few weeks before Election Day 2016, Coryell called us from his home, in Orlando, Florida. We chatted about his music then and now, his steadfast Gibson companion, playing with Miles Davis, and his affinity for Wes Montgomery and Igor Stravinsky.
How are you?
A little anxious. I just don’t know what’s going to happen in this election. The country has been torn apart and brought down a very ugly road of lack of good behavior. There’s so much backbiting and criticizing; we’ve hit a new low.
I hear you. Let’s talk about something less stressful. What’s the main guitar on Barefoot Man?
I’m playing a Gibson 1967 Super 400. The Super 400, to me, is the best guitar ever made. Period. It’s got such an amazing neck. The quality of necks has gone way down since 1967.
That’s the exact same one you’ve played for years, I would imagine. Yeah, off and on, because when I started doing electro-fusion in the early to mid-’70s, my managers demanded that I play a solidbody, a Stratocaster or Les Paul.
I’d bet that Super 400 has got lots of stories.
I had a Super 400, just like the one I have now, when I got to New York in 1965. A couple years later I was working in clubs there. And because I was kind of a hillbilly, kind of unsophisticated, I thought it would be okay one night, because I was probably really tired, to leave the guitar in the back room. When I came back to the club the next night, it was gone. I was told—but I don’t know if it’s true or not, nor do I care—that it was stolen by members of the Velvet Underground.
That’s actually pretty cool.
Yeah. I had just hooked up with Gibson as an endorser and it was unbelievable. I called the company—I can’t remember if they were in Nashville yet. They might have still been in Kalamazoo [Editor’s note: Gibson was in Kalamazoo at that time], but I got a new guitar, the one I still have, right away. Nowadays, something like that would rarely happen.
Have you done any work on the guitar over the years?
It got broken three or four times when, again, very naïve of me, I thought I could check the guitar [on an airplane] without loosening the strings, or maybe I just forgot to. Anyway, on at least two occasions I opened the case and the neck was cracked right at the headstock, and I had that fixed. It looks ugly, but it still plays and sounds great.
Did you use other guitars on the record or just the Super 400?
I’m trying to remember how many tracks I played my Martin on. Martin made a guitar for me about five years ago. It’s got my name inside, when you look into the soundhole, but they never manufactured it.
With Barefoot Man, you deliberately set out to make a high-energy record like you did in the early 1970s. How did you go about doing that?
I started by re-listening to Barefoot Boy and tried to figure out what I was doing. “Gypsy Queen” was a composition that was made popular by Carlos Santana. I’ve never played like that since. I think when I did I retuned the guitar a little bit. I think I moved the sixth string about a half-step and also used a wah-wah pedal, but because of my avant-garde tendencies in New York throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, I was able to go play some different stuff. I actually liked it when I heard it again.
Why haven’t you played like that since?
Because it was a unique situation. I was playing with one of the greatest saxophone players I’ve ever played with, the late Steve Marcus. And one of the best drummers in the world—fortunately, he’s still alive—Roy Haynes. I had my drummer from my band that I had right before the Eleventh House and he was a very soulful gentlemen named Harry Wilkinson from the state of Tennessee—he’s living in Nashville now. The way everybody played made me play in a certain way that I’m not always able to do.
In jazz music—at least for me—you have to respond to what the other musicians are doing. You can’t just put your head down like a bull and forge forward. It’s a listening thing.
On that note, how have you learned to be a deep listener and to respond in the moment?
Because that’s what everybody told me to do when I was coming up. I’d be chastised if it sounded like I wasn’t listening to the other people.