Larry Coryell, Pioneering Jazz Fusion Guitarist, Dead at 73

Influential musician who worked with Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and John McLaughlin dies of natural causes

Pioneering jazz fusion guitarist Larry Coryell has died of natural causes at age 73. Credit: Courtesy of Larry Coryell Estate

Larry Coryell, one of jazz fusion's pioneering guitarists, died Sunday in his New York City hotel room of natural causes, according to his publicist. He had played gigs on Friday and Saturday night at the city's Iridium club and had a spate of summer tour dates on the horizon with his group the Eleventh House. He was 73.

In the mid-to-late Sixties, Coryell broke down genre barriers with his eclectic, fluid playing and experiments with melding plodding rock rhythms with spacious jazz chords. His breakthrough, 1969's Spaces, featured a who's who of the nascent fusion genre's innovators, including guitarist John McLaughlin, pianist Chick Corea and drummer Billy Cobham – all of whom would play on Miles Davis' landmark 1970 fusion LP Bitches Brew. He would later play with McLaughlin again in the Guitar Trio, an ensemble that also featured Paco DeLucia and would later include Al DiMeola after Coryell was forced to exit due to drug addiction.

Coryell was born on April 2nd, 1943 in Galveston, Texas, but grew up in the Seattle area. He began playing piano at age four and picked up the guitar as a teenager, drawing influence from both Chet Atkins and Chuck Berry. He studied the instrument through college and eventually moved to New York City, where he took classical guitar lessons.

"What sparked me to getting into the guitar was the mobility of the instrument – I had been taking piano lessons, but the piano, although a great instrument, was large, staid, and kind of 'establishment,' whereas the guitar was portable … like a poor man's piano, and that appealed to me," he once said in an interview with Musicguy247. "The seminal 'event' to get me serious about playing the guitar was when, as a teenager, I heard somebody my own age play very well. Even though it was rock & roll, the guy displayed great skill and musicality. So, for me, if he could do that, then maybe I could as well."

In 1966, he formed a psychedelic group, the Free Spirits, in which he also sang and played sitar, while also dabbling in jazz. His musical career led to him tour with Cream frontman Jack Bruce and to record with vibraphonist Gary Burton and flautist Herbie Mann, and he made his recorded debut on Chico Hamilton's The Dealer. In addition to Eleventh House, which he formed in 1973, he also played with the group Foreplay (not to be confused with the later Fourplay). 

Coryell put out dozens of solo and ensemble releases throughout the Seventies up through the present day, recording alongside Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Barron and Stéphane Grapelli, among others. He had re-formed Eleventh House around the time of his death.

He'd put out a new album, Barefoot Man: Sanpaku, last October, according to Billboard, and a new Eleventh House full-length, Seven Secrets, will come out June 2nd. He'd also recently worked on operatic adaptations of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as well as James Joyce's Ulysses.

NPR reports that Coryell is survived by his wife, Tracey, daughters Annie and Allegra, sons Murali and Julian, and six grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled to be held at New York City's SGI-USA Buddhist temple on Friday, according to Billboard.