Larry Coryell in a conversation with David Aronson about Miles Davis
Source: JAZZ [Swiss magazine] 4/1984, reprinted in JAZZ 5/1985, MILES DAVIS SPECIAL
JAZZ: And there are certain musicians who always sound fine. You had a brief but interesting encounter with one of those bright lights: Miles Davis. And in the end it was Julie who helped hook the thing up. Could you talk a bit about you and Miles and about that session in the middle of his retirement?
Larry Coryell: When I first started learning jazz music in Seattle I very early became aware of how Miles was the leader in more than one way, that is, the leader of this music. He seemed me to be what everybody strove for; he seemed to be widely copied. If you could play Miles' stuff or arrangements by Miles, it was generally the best way to do it. And it was also the way to communicate with other people. Because most musicians agreed that it was the best way to interpret this music. And Miles was not only a great trumpet player, but his total overall concept, the fact that he paid so much attention to the rhythm section, that he kept coming up with innovative ideas about ways to arrange familiar material and also unusual ideas about the rhythm section and refining things. And his particular brand of taste became widely copied. And it took me a while - I remember the first time I heard Sketches of Spain, it didn't register, but after a few more listenings it hit me. And also the Porgy and Bess album hit me that this was, that this really had a distinctive voice. And even though his idol was Louis Armstrong and the admired Dizzy Gillespie, he really had his own extremely high quality interpretation of the music. For someone growing up in my generation and aspiring to the musical heights that I was aspiring to, never in my fondest dreams - or only in my fondest dreams did I ever imagine that I could play with Miles. I remember that when I moved to New York I went to see Miles. Miles came to a club, the Village Vanguard. I was mesmerized. For us, my generation, he really had the status of a superstar. And I was with Gary Burton's group on tour in 1967 in Europe along with Miles' group. And of course we wanted to know everything that Miles was into, was doing, everything he was thinking. I remember that on that particular tour he carried his own trainer around because he was boxing. He had that superfamous group with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, and Ron Carter. And I remember they were all dressed in tuxedoes. And I just couldn't believe how much head and shoulders the Miles Davis quintet was above all the other groups. They just seemed to operating on another level. There was a lot of telepathy there. I'd go hear and say, "How do they do it?" And of course I would never think that I could be in the same room with the guy. I remember the first time I saw him backstage at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. He just sort of glared at me. I was just coming up ... and I never even knew if he was aware of me. I don't think he was.
I see now that when Tony Williams asked me to join his group that that could have been a possible stepping stone to Miles. Because instead of me joining Tony's group in the late sixties, it was John McLaughlin. And of course you know the rest of the story. The rest is history. So I was very disappointed that I couldn't play with Miles at that time. And also very relieved because I didn't have too much musical self-esteem. But I continued to see Miles' groups. And I remember the night Tony Williams played his last gig with Miles. We were always aware of what Miles was doing, who was playing with him. And of course he got into the fusion thing with Bitches Brew, and I remember very clearly we were doing the Spaces album. And all the other musicians, with the except of Miroslav, had just come from the Miles sessions. And we had to snadwich the Spaces sessions between the Miles recording schedule. And of course John would come in and Billy would come in and Chick Corea and they would all be talking about having been with Miles. Miles' choice of musicians was always admired. The list of who he catapulted to greater things is endless.
Always being aware of what he was doing while I was persuing my own career - I had the Foreplay band and the Eleventh House - I was really glad to see Miles getting into fusion. I finally got to meet him. I got invited to his house through a friend of my wife, Helena Steinberg. And I was just scared to death. I got to visit Miles in his brownstone house during a break in a Village Vanguard gig I was doing. I went uptown to meet my wife at Miles' brownstone.
In '78 when I went over to Germany to do the Splendid and Standing Ovation albums, Miles ended up staying, through Helena cajoling, in Connecticut, to cool out, so to speak. And he was staying at the house. And I was in a state of shock. I never thought I'd get that close to the man again. And I remember that Julie and Helena were taking care of him because he was having some physical problems with his hip. By the time I got back from Germany, he had moved over to Helena's house, which was not far from my house. I remember going over there and being around Miles in an informal setting, to be in the same room with him and to talk to him. His voice was very hard to understand. You had to pay close attention to him. I'm sure that was equally a source of discomfort for him in some cases.
And of course to get a phone call from Miles was always something. I remember getting a call from him one evening, saying did I want to go out on the road with him. But I was fully booked and couldn't do it. But that was really ... I consider myself to be one of the lucky group to get a phone call from Miles.
Anyway. Miles wanted to do some music. He was up there resting and recuperating in Helena's house in Connecticut. And of course Julie and I would go up to hang out and eat with him. He's famous for being a great cook and all. And just to shoot the breeze ... Just listening to him talk on all subjects ... he's very intelligent on all subjects from movies to music. He took a liking to me and told me to come over with a guitar. And he started composing a piece that was very adagio. And we were working on it together. He was composing on the piano. And we'd be sitting next to each other on the piano seat, working things out. He finally came across one ostinato that he liked. I guess about this time I was bringing over my guitar every day and playing for him. I was very flattered when he remarked about how quick I was.
He decided to organise a rehearsal, so we had the rehearsal there in Connecticut at Helena's house. He had Masabumi Kikuchi on piano, Al Foster on drums ... It was winter with snow on the ground and we had one rehearsal and soon after that he told Teo Macero to book Columbia studios in midtown Manhattan, and we just recorded the ostinato part.
I remember it was so funny. I said, "Miles, what about the adagio?" And he said [imitating the famous Miles whispered growl], "Fuck the adagio." So we just worked on the ostinate part. I was very impressed by the way he worked the band, by the way he organised everything. It was so incredible the way he had us doing it, because he had us thinking we were rehearsing. He said, "Let's run it down." So we would run it down, and we ran it down twice. And then he said, "Okay, you can go home now." and I didn't realize he was recording the whole thing. We actually got out of there before the alloted studio time was up and it was just a three hours session.
I can't find my cassette of it, but it was kind of a jungle thing built around the ostinato, and he had a melody for me to play, but it was very free. And I was playing the electric guitar. He took the cassette of the session back home, and for the next two or three days he played it over and over again. He played it for people on the phone. He was really proud of it. And he tried to get me hooked up with Columbia records. He did everything in his power to further my career and it was really fantastic to see how much he cared about me. It's interesting to put in perspective as I look back, first having become aware of Miles' greatness around 1964, and really wanting to emulate what he was doing, to find myself in the studio with him fifteen years later. I think I was most impressed by his musical leadership and complete and total charisma, his ability to draw the best out of people.
Anyway, the piece never came out. I don't know what became of it or where it is. It's probably in the vault at Columbia, prpbably sitting along with a lot of other experiments he was trying. It's nothing like what he's doing now. I was really glad to see him continue ...
I forget to say that he didn't play any trumpet on this. We brought the trumpet ... I remember bringing the trumpet to the studio but he said, "No no, man. I don't want to play the trumpet." He played synthesizer. We had two electric pianos, Kikuchi and a guy from Connecticut, George Pavlis.
It was really a dream come true. And Miles gave me so many lessons: how to be more restrained in my phrasing; he gave a lot of tips how to be more creative with my phrasing. But the leadership was the most impressive thing of all, just how very quietly he stopped and started the whole thing.
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