ROCK / LIVE REVIEW: When the jangling stops: Phil Johnson watches the legendary jazz-rock guitarist Larry Coryell in concert at the Jazz Cafe, London

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The Independent Culture
Larry Coryell's reputation as the guitarist's guitarist ensured a large contingent of co-instrumentalists for his opening London appearance. You could tell they were guitarists not only by their calloused fingers and low-slung shoulders but because they sat near the front and kept eye-contact with the star's fingers rather than his face. They also looked longingly at his collection of guitars. In the world of jazz-rock fusion, Coryell is a legend. In 1967, he formed the group Free Spirits, perhaps the first exponents of the genre, and later enjoyed wide success with the very heavy Eleventh House. You could even say that when it comes to jazz-rock guitar, Coryell wrote the book (Improvisation from Rock to Jazz, a record plus booklet guitar-tutor). Those fans who had come in hope of fusion techno-flash risked being disappointed, however. There wasn't a single effects pedal on stage and Coryell appeared to be wearing carpet slippers. Appropriately, given the abundance of earnest students in the house, he looked like a UCLA professor on an exchange-programme, dressed casually in short-sleeved shirt and slacks.

There wasn't a band, either. Or at least not at first, when Coryell began solo, playing a 12-string acoustic guitar. On the opening number - a delicate, almost New Age kind of mood- enhancer - it was a little difficult to tell where the tuning-up stopped and the performance began. It was immediately clear that Coryell knew his way around the instrument, though, chiming out harmonics from the most unlikely places and producing an incredible array of sounds without any electronic assistance. As with the glass-harmonica, a little solo 12-string goes a long way, and it came as something of a relief when the jangling had to stop. Changing to a nifty- looking solid-bodied instrument for further solo pieces, including Gershwin's 'Summertime' and a piece by Ravel, Coryell remained in chamber-music mode, and the quietness of the sound severely tested the attention-span of the non-guitarists in the house. The Jazz Cafe is never the most sepulchral of venues, and a steady hubbub of conversation threatened occasionally to drown out the music completely.

Things improved when the band, made up of Londoners Gary Crosby on bass and Winston Clifford on drums, appeared. Coryell strapped on a big semi-acoustic Gibson - the traditional badge of jazz guitar credibility - and started to swing. Clifford, particularly, was an inspiration to him. Though they had first met only a few hours previously, the drummer seemed to know exactly the right kind of easy, relaxed rhythm that would allow Coryell to shine. On one exchange of eight-bar solos between drummer and guitarist, Clifford clearly amazed Coryell, uncannily echoing his phrases with witty accents on cymbal and snare. The repertoire was the Esperanto of jobbing jazz musicians worldwide: standards by Rollins, Monk, Brubeck and Coltrane. Coryell gradually passed all the tests of the serious guitarist: incredible speed on single-note runs, chordal patterns that would defeat the most indefatigable transcriber of finger-placement tablature and pained facial gestures worthy of Alvin Lee in Woodstock.

The second set followed the same pattern as the first: heavy-going solo guitar giving way to grooves with the band. Coryell's lack of serious hardware may have confused his guitarist fans but the technique was there for all to see. It would take a brave guitarist to go home and pick up his instrument after this gig.