I wager there is no such thing as a “great” Larry Coryell album. Even on his better records, the guitarist proved uneven, inconsistent or, more often than not, uninteresting. Worse, a bad vocal always threatened to wipe out whatever an otherwise decent Coryell record might promise.
He is chiefly remembered for the funk fusion of his Eleventh House records and the all-star Spaces (with Chick Corea and fellow guitarist John McLaughlin) – all from the early seventies. After being dubbed “the Godfather of Fusion,” Coryell remade himself in the eighties as a straight-ahead jazz standard-bearer on a series of records for the Muse and HighNote labels.
To these ears, Coryell always sounded better on other people’s records. For example, Coryell is heard to superb effect on Chico Hamilton’s “Thoughts” (1966), Chico O’Farrill’s “Green Moss” (1966), Don Sebesky’s “The Word” and “Guruvin” (both 1969, the latter on electric sitar[!]), Wolfgang Dauner’s “Tuning Spread” and “Yin” (both 1972), the little-known and under-revered Mysterious Flying Orchestra’s “Improvisational Rondo for Saxophone and Guitar” (1977), Miles Davis’ Miles-less “Miss Last Summer” (1978) and Joey DeFrancesco’s “JLJ Blues” (2012).
By the early nineties, Coryell was actively touring and recording in a variety of styles for a bevy of independent labels. He never found the renown or the crossover success of his hero and mentor, Wes Montgomery, or his friend and contemporary, George Benson.
Then, out of the blue, producer Creed Taylor – who had much to do with making stars of Montgomery and Benson – recruited Coryell to record and film a concert of Brazilian music in Brazil. The resulting album was the largely re-recorded Live in Bahia, Coryell’s 1992 CTI debut. But it was not Coryell’s first scrape with CTI.
According to the guitarist’s 2007 autobiography, Improvising: My Life in Music, Coryell pitched his 1969 solo debut, Lady Coryell, to Creed Taylor, who, not surprisingly, turned it down. The album was shortly thereafter picked up by Vanguard, where Coryell spent much of the next decade.
Coryell and Taylor’s paths wouldn’t cross again until CTI’s 1980 all-star date Fuse One. While Coryell didn’t factor on CTI’s 1981 Fuse One follow-up, Silk, the guitarist is prominent on the collective’s second – and mostly wonderful – David Matthews-led sequel, Ice, first issued in 1984. Coryell also surprisingly took several nice turns on pianist Roland Hanna’s 1982 CTI album Gershwin Carmichael Cats.
Fallen Angel was the 1993 CTI follow-up to Live in Bahia and the second of Coryell’s three increasingly commercial discs for the label. Although Coryell himself never thought much of his CTI discs, Fallen Angel is among the guitarist’s best, most cohesive discs and ranks high with Live in Bahia among the best of the late-period CTI CDs.
This is a disc that was born in more controversy than is typical for the average jazz record, or even the sublimely well-crafted CTI album.
First, producer Creed Taylor, arranger Don Sebesky and engineer Rudy Van Gelder conspired to build a jazz disc without any sort of a rhythm section. Sebesky “programmed” a bank of synthesizers to fill this void – an innovative (and cheaper) way to make jazz sound and feel contemporary. To my knowledge, Taylor had only done this one time before: on keyboardist Roger Kellaway’s 1984 album Creation.
Second – and most remarkably – the great Wes Montgomery, who died in 1967, makes an unexpectedly star appearance on this 1993 disc. This may not sound like a big deal in the heady days of hip-hoppers sampling older jazz, particularly from the absolutely sample-able CTI catalog. But there is a bit more here than meets the ear.
After the surprising success of the 1991 “virtual duet” singer Natalie Cole shared with her long-deceased father on “Unforgettable,” Creed Taylor made a daring proposal to Larry Coryell: a “digital duet” with Wes Montgomery on the deceased’s iconic “Bumpin’ on Sunset.”
”Initially, I did not want to do this,” said Coryell in his autobiography, “thinking it would be sacrilegious to mess with anybody else.” But Coryell was eventually swayed by the success of the Coles’ “Unforgettable” and fellow guitarist Lee Ritenour’s then-recent tribute to Montgomery, the absolutely terrific Wes Bound (which, notably, does not include “Bumpin’ on Sunset”).
Coryell said “Creed apparently still owned the master to that track, and the original had been on his CTI label when it was a hit in the ‘60s.” Well, not quite. While Taylor may have possessed a master “copy” of the Wes track, he could not have “owned” it as the original was not on CTI. Even at this point, Taylor did not own the bulk of what was actually on CTI.
Coincidentally, however, at the very same time, a series of Taylor-produced discs from his days at ABC-Paramount, Impulse and Verve began appearing in Europe on the “PDCTI“ label – which neatly but incorrectly translated as “Public Domain CTI.” Of course, that wasn’t true. But some three dozen such discs briefly appeared, including the 1966 Verve album Tequila that featured the original “Bumpin’ on Sunset.”
As titled here, “(Angel on Sunset) Bumpin’ on Sunset” sets the tone for much of what Fallen Angel is all about: a sort of greatest-hits tribute; not to the artist under consideration, but rather the producer, Creed Taylor.
While “Bumpin’ on Sunset” is always a pleasure, it would have been better if Coryell had crafted his own take on the tune – as he would do so compellingly a decade later on The Power Trio – Live in Chicago.
Here, Coryell does little more than add Sebesky-like touches of counterpoint on echo-y acoustic guitar. Sebesky himself adds some piano and synth-string washes, giving the song a strangely cantina vibe. The song takes off, though, when Coryell switches to electric guitar and seemingly spars with Wes as though Wes had overdubbed himself.
Things get more interesting on the disc’s opener, Marvin Gaye’s timeless “Inner City Blues.” Of course, “Inner City Blues” was Grover Washington, Jr.’s first CTI-Kudu single and the title track to his 1971 solo debut. Here, Sebesky gives the song a pleasing techno turn, allowing the guitarist to get down and funky on amplified acoustic guitar.
The disc’s ninth track, ”Thus Spoke Z,” is a clever techno update of Richard Strauss classic “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which, of course, Deodato spun into CTI’s biggest hit in 1972. Deodato’s diabolically clever version, also known simply as “2001” after Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, spawned dozens of knock-offs in the mid-seventies. It was long past due for an update.
Here, Sebesky crafts an especially funky backdrop (it might better be titled “Thus Spoke S”), allowing Coryell and pianist Mulgrew Miller – who frankly sounds an awful lot like Bob James here – to spar to great effect. Indeed, “Z” offers some of Coryell’s tastiest playing on the entire disc. And whether he knew it or not, Coryell beautifully quotes Gary McFarland’s “Long Live the King” on the song’s outro.
The jazz standard “Stardust” gets a brief, but beautiful nod by Coryell on solo guitar. The song had previously been visited – in a sort of Brazilian version – by Taylor, Sebesky and Coryell on pianist Roland Hanna’s 1982 CTI album Gershwin Carmichael Cats. Coryell had himself recorded the tune at the Van Gelder studio in 1992 with trumpeter Jack Walrath on an album called Out of the Tradition. Much more should have been made of this. But…
”Stardust” leads here into an unusual take on Erroll Garner’s “Misty.” Sebesky ill-advisedly sets the tune to a reggae-lite backdrop, likely in an effort to contemporize the tune.
It’s an odd choice, particularly in this reading. Mulgrew Miller’s brief Bob James-like flourishes even suggest this track could have been an outtake from a Bob James album of the period. “Misty” was no doubt a concession to the then-popular “NAC” or Smooth Jazz market of the day. But no one at CTI or Smooth Jazz radio made anything of it.
Fallen Angel’s other nods to the contemporary-music market include “Never Never,” the disc’s lone single, and “Fallen,” both featuring Klyde Jones’ vocals and smoothie saxophonist Richard Elliott. Coryell practically disappears on both tunes, making the song’s inclusions too obviously gimmicky attempts at commercialization.
“Fallen,” however, would have made a much better single choice, with or without Larry Coryell’s name. The song, written by Lauren Wood (a.k.a. “Chunky”), was first recorded in 1979 by Nicolette Larson and had recently staged a comeback as Wood’s 1982 recording of the song was prominently featured on the 1990 hit soundtrack for Pretty Woman. This version, too, could have been a contender.
While the above pieces are likely Fallen Angel’s better-known – or more notorious – pieces, the remaining half of the disc is where Coryell owns his own disc. That these tracks comprise roughly the bulk of the second half of the disc suggests the album may have fared better with slightly different programming or better served on or as a separate disc.
Coryell first waxes eloquently on Sebesky’s lovely “I Remember Bill,” offering a nuanced reading that soars lovingly over Sebesky’s subtle strings. Named for pianist Bill Evans – who, surprisingly, never worked with Don Sebesky – and riffing off Sebesky’s earlier “I Remember Wes” (a feature for George Benson), “I Remember Bill” was first waxed for Stanley Turrentine’s Sebeksky-arranged disc If I Could (1993).
I say “first” only because Turrentine’s disc, which was recorded in May 1993, was issued only a few weeks before Coryell’s otherwise undated recording. Sebesky would later record the Evans remembrance on his own 1998 disc-length tribute to the pianist, I Remember Bill (A Tribute to Bill Evans), a disc that features contributions from Larry Coryell on a number of tracks other than that particular song.
Coryell switches to acoustic guitar for the haunting “Pieta,” where he and pianist and fellow CTI recording artist Ted Rosenthal trade fours. “Pieta” is based on Rachmaninoff’s 1915 wordless romance “Vocalise,” which Sebesky first presented as a feature for Milt Jackson and Paul Desmond on his 1973 CTI album Giant Box - remarkably the first and nearly only jazz take of the tune.
Strangely buried in the set list, “Pieta” is among Sebesky’s signature best “jazz classics,” ranking right up there with Jim Hall’s 1975 “Concierto de Aranjuez” (with Chet Baker and Paul Desmond) and in accord with such melancholy Spanish-inflected numbers as his own “El Morro” (notably the 1977 Chet Baker version).
In another nod to Bill Evans – this time specifically to the 1963 landmark Creed Taylor production Conversations with Myself - Coryell beautifully overdubs himself on “Stella by Starlight.” Coryell had previously recorded the tune with Miroslav Vitous on a 1987 Bill Evans-Scott La Faro tribute album. Here, Coryell claims “Stella” as a guitarist’s tune, dressing the lady in shades of Django Reinhardt and Johnny Smith.
Coryell overdubs himself again on the all-too brief “Westerley Wind,” this time, however, alluding again to the guitarist in the title. The remaining Coryell originals, oddly tacked on at the end of this 52-minute program, are the quirky yet playful “Monk’s Corner” (again featuring Rosenthal) and the evocative “The Moors.”
Both of these last pieces, which hark back to the earlier-mentioned Kellaway disc Creation, are interesting as sketches – from a soundtrack or as background music – but don’t necessarily stand up well as full-fledged compositions. As such, they seem like filler the album doesn’t need. But Fallen Angel might have been different, if not a more uniquely Larry Coryell disc, had they gone in this particular direction.
Fallen Angel was released in October 1993 to surprisingly little notice. Perhaps, though, it wasn’t so surprising after all.
Maybe it was the Larry Coryell album no one was waiting for. Coryell, who was 50 years old at the time, was likely past his prime for crossover success. And Creed Taylor probably overcooked this one, throwing a bit too much in to the mix to make it palatable for most. Still, Fallen Angel has much to recommend it.
“Most of us would agree,” wrote the San Francisco-based music tip-sheet The Gavin Report in 1993, “that, generally, Larry Coryell sits on the more esoteric side of the jazz guitar spectrum, and even though Fallen Angel is, putting it mildly, an about-face, it's not a direction Coryell has taken without deep contemplation. By working with Don Sebesky and Creed Taylor, both exquisite purveyors of commercial jazz, Coryell made [the disc] a direct musical statement as opposed to another happy sax record."
Agreed. Still, a direct musical statement was not what people wanted in 1993.
The disc’s “happy sax” single, “Never Never” – paired with what should have been at least one of the album’s single releases, “Thus Spoke Z” – failed to garner any airplay. Coryell said, however, that New York-area stations picked up on “Angel on Sunset,” attracting attention to the album – and ire. Coryell wrote that “[t]he worst fallout was from [guitarist] Pat Metheny, who really slammed me for doing the Wes thing.”
The great Brazilian guitarist and composer Luiz Bonfá (1922-2001) was sufficiently impressed by Fallen Angel to write “Samblues for Mr. Coryell” for his 1997 album with vocalist Ithamara Koorax, Almost in Love – in a performance that featured Coryell himself.
Coryell would go on to appear on two tracks from the next CTI album, saxophonist Donald Harrison’s The Power of Cool (1994). Then, in 1995, the guitarist’s third and final CTI album appeared, the blatantly commercial and ultimately prophetic I’ll Be Over You (yes, the Toto song), especially notable for “Nightshade,” a terrific pairing of Coryell with Grover Washington, Jr. and, apparently, a lot of unpaid bills.
Several of Coryell’s pieces from Fallen Angel (and “Nightshade”) were sampled by a CTI collective dubbed Thus Spoke Z (a nom de music for Creed Taylor’s son, John) for the 1996 “acid jazz” disc Evolution - curiously excluding the song “Thus Spoke Z” or any samples of it.
From this point forward, CTI Records would struggle to survive, issuing a scant few discs until a CTI All Stars date released (in Japan only) in 2010. Coryell went on to perform and record prolifically until his death in 2017. Indeed, his first post-CTI album, Sketches of Coryell, seemed inspired by the lessons he learned while with CTI. But even the more consistent Sketches of Coryell failed to find much of an audience.
Three decades later – and far removed from the days when smooth jazz battled for significance with the so-called “Young Lions” – this altogether imperfect disc deserves consideration for all it attempts. Fallen Angel is as much a worthy tribute to Creed Taylor’s decades-long genius as it is one of Larry Coryell’s best and most engaging discs in his half-century discography.