Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Improvising: My Life in Music
By Larry Coryell
Backbeat Books

As one of the pioneers of jazz-rock fusion, Larry Coryell’s star was rising in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s at a time when jazz overall was trending down commercially. Despite the ups and downs to be expected in a long musical career, Coryell recounts a generally charmed, if chaotic life in his new memoir Improvising.

When discussing his success, Coryell gives credit early and often to his step-father Gene for encouraging his speculative career choice. The guitarist writes:

“I must have had a deep universal connection with Gene Coryell because, unlike most parents who want their kid to have some stable gig to “fall back” on, he simply encouraged the hell out of me to excel at what I loved—music.” (p. 6)

The 1960’s and 1970’s took a toll on Coryell, particularly the drug addiction he would eventually kick in the 1980’s. Coryell, while readily acknowledging his mistakes, is reluctant to dwell on the more lurid details. Along the way, he saw the violent turmoil of the early 1970’s first hand, in one instance having a gig in Boulder broken up because of a bomb scare. Coryell also recalls witnessing the time honored French tradition of rioting and burning cars in Toulouse:

“What did happen was an agitated group of students decided that ‘all music should be free’—that is, they didn’t want to pay—so they rioted outside the theater where we were performing, throwing rocks against the second-floor dressing room windows. They turned over some cars and set fire to trash cans.” (p. 92)

It seems clear that Coryell has the same passion for teaching he has for playing, as he frequently inserts instructional asides into his narrative. In an appendix, several of his Guitar Player columns are reprinted, and a CD of guitar lessons is also included.

Throughout Improvising, Coryell tries to minimize dramatic situations and resists the urge to criticize former associates. He goes out of his way to express his respect for guitar colleagues like the great Barney Kessel and the under-appreciated Hungarian defector Gabor Szabo. Written in an easy-going, conversational style, Improvising is a pleasant read that will be particularly rewarding and informative for students of the guitar.