Larry Coryell - guitar, ARP synthesizer, vocals; Mervin Bronson - bass; Mike Mandel - piano, ARP synthesizer; Steve Marcus - tenor and soprano saxophones; Harry Wilkinson - drums, percussion
Years before the term jazz-rock fusion existed, American guitarist Larry Coryell was playing a pioneering role. As early as 1966, Coryell co-founded Free Spirits, an early jazz-rock band, before recording three seminal progressive jazz albums with Gary Burton. In 1969, prior to recording the first album under his own name, Coryell toured with Cream bassist Jack Bruce, Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell, as well as keyboardist Mike Mandel, combining the influences of rock into a jazz framework. By the early 1970's, Coryell put together a remarkable band of his own including Harry Wilkinson on drums, Mervin Bronson on bass, Steve Marcus on soprano sax, and Mike Mandel on electric piano. During the next several years, these musicians developed a hybrid of jazz and rock, free of preconceptions. The results displayed plenty of virtuosity, but were also interspersed with enough of the fiery playing style of rock musicians to attract a younger audience not as comfortable with the overly intellectualized forms of jazz. Coryell's group, known collectively as Foreplay, recorded several groundbreaking albums in the early 1970s, proving that these musicians had a gift for invention, some of it quirky, but nonetheless impressive from both a technical and musical standpoint. By 1973, a peak year of creativity in the jazz-rock fusion movement, thanks in no small part to the innovations of Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, Coryell continued blazing his own path, free of formulaic limitations. Recording the final album with the Foreplay lineup, 1973's "The Real Great Escape," Coryell embraced jazz, rock, pop, electronics and he was even taking the questionable plunge of singing, a bold move to say the least. By the end of 1973, Coryell would revamp the band, only retaining the services of keyboardist Mike Mandel. Future legendary trumpet player Randy Brecker and the powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Danny Triffin and drummer Alphonse Mouzon fleshed out his next band, The Eleventh House, which would become Coryell's most recognized and commercially successful venture. Their debut album, 1974's "Introducing The Eleventh House," contained some of the most adventurous and technically hypercharged playing of Coryell's career.
Which brings us to this performance, recorded at The State University of New York, when Coryell and Foreplay opened for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This recording captures Coryell at a crossroads, performing some of the finest material from both "Offering" and "The Real Great Escape," as well as developing material that would feature on the first Eleventh House album the following year. This recording serves as a musical bridge between two of the most memorable stages of Coryell's career.
They kick things off with Coryell's composition, "Yin" a song that would become a highlight of his next album with Eleventh House. Comparisons to the original Mahavishnu Orchestra are inevitable and Coryell's intensity and compositional framework are elaborate and just as melodically sophisticated. However, the comparisons end on "All My Loves Laughter," a Jim Webb song that not only features Coryell on vocals, but also clearly veers off in a smooth bluesy direction less interested in acrobatic solos than group improvisation. The next three pieces, all of them Coryell compositions, display the exceptional improvisational skills of the group, beginning with "Foreplay," a signature track from 1972's "Offering," and the title track from "The Real Great Escape." Dipping back to 1969 material, they deliver an exceptional reading of "Lady Coryell." Here, Coryell's unerring sense of swing, finesse and brilliant, blues-inspired style are undeniable. These performances all display what an impressive band this was. In both tone and execution, Marcus' solos are exceptional, Mandel's processed keyboard playing is humorous and original and the rhythm section of Bronson and Wilkinson are relentlessly inventive.
Also featuring a vocal from Coryell is "Makes Me Wanna Shout," one of the most overtly non-jazz based pieces on "The Real Great Escape, but incomplete due to tape stock running out. When the recording resumes, the group is blazing into a continuous sequence that begins with a second high velocity reading of "Yin," which then segues directly into an unidentified number, serving as a showcase for Mandel's fresh imaginative keyboard playing. This continuous sequence (nearly 25 minutes altogether) culminates with the Harry Wilkinson composition and title track from "Offering." Wilkinson's crackling and pummeling make for an engaging call-and-response counterpoint to Coryell's solos and at nearly twice the length of the studio recording, contains some of the most free-form performances of the night.
After introducing the band members, Coryell announces that they will conclude the set with another Mike Mandel composition, "Joyride." Considerably different from the version that would surface on the Eleventh House album the following year, the compositional framework is elaborate and melodically sophisticated, with Coryell and Mandel's dynamic interaction and intricate playing at the fore. If one listens closely, hints of Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From The Sun" can almost be discerned amidst the fiery fretwork. This is a blazing conclusion to the set, leaving the audience clamoring for more.
For many, Coryell has never sounded better than during his tenure with these particular musicians. They are all inspired and inventive but Coryell is clearly the front man here. Although his next band, The Eleventh House would become one of the most famous fusion bands of the 1970s, here Coryell still stands independent from the standard jazz-rock approach many musicians were embracing. Although he does emulate certain elements of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Coryell had long been working in an idiom that pre-dated McLaughlin's innovations. Though Coryell remains one of the most creative and accomplished electric guitarists, he would never achieve the popularity of many less capable but better promoted musicians. Other groups would attain much greater commercial success, but there's no mistaking the fact that Coryell was very much a visionary in his own right. Some of Coryell's most entrancing melodies, lightning fast phrases and spectacular solos can be found right here, in addition to a band capable of playing with guts and urgency. This live recording captures the tail end of an era when Coryell's music was most free of preconceptions and ripe with creativity.