Larry Coryell’s Stravinsky Binge

David R. Adler
4 min readMay 8, 2024

I have this vintage magazine ad for Ovation on my wall. By the late ’70s/early ’80s, Larry Coryell was hugely influential but kicking a debilitating drug habit, as he recounts in his 2007 memoir Improvising: My Life in Music. Part of his recovery involved ambitious, seemingly impossible solo guitar interpretations of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Petrouchka and Firebird. All of it. During this period he also recorded Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and a duo treatment of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with Kazuhito Yamashita, one of the greatest classical guitarists ever.

Now, one can’t just pick up a transcription of all of Stravinsky’s major early ballets for steel-string acoustic guitar. Coryell arranged them, something never done before, and learned them, to performance level. And that was just the bare minimum: He had to achieve a level of comfort for the great Larry Coryell to emerge while he played. Not in his bedroom but in the studio, on somebody’s dime, he played them down, movement by movement, no ProTools editing, no patches that I can hear although who knows. Teo Macero (Mingus Ah Um, Time Out, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew) produced Coryell’s entire Stravinsky binge.

Coryell was not a technically clean player, and his plugged-in Ovation never gave him the world’s most beautiful tone, certainly not in 1982–83. But to me that makes his achievement all the more captivating. It’s raw. He wasn’t trying to contribute something “legit” to the Stravinsky literature. It was process over product. In his memoir he is savagely critical of some of his albums, including ones that I liked. I should go back and re-read what he says about these, but it almost doesn’t matter. They always remind me how the power of music transcends music itself.

These recordings are largely unavailable. The music is seldom heard, and yet it exists. Coryell did the work, nothing can change that. I have two on LP. I found the Rite of Spring many years ago as a half-decent MP3 download and just last year got it on CD. My copy of Scheherazade is badly warped — putting a batch of your vinyl near a radiator for a year will do that. Nice work, 20-year-old me. At least the cover is in great shape.

My homage to Larry Coryell ran in The Village Voice after his death in 2017 at age 73. When I heard his “Toronto Under the Sign of Capricorn,” from European Impressions, an album that changed my life, I never dreamed that one day, I could just pull it up on YouTube and see the actual footage from Montreux.

I met him once backstage after a concert with Claude Bolling. I made a special trip to the National Guitar Summer Workshop in Connecticut to see him play solo, and again in duo with Emily Remler. I also saw Coryell, Sharon Isbin and Laurindo Almeida play the 3 Guitars 3 repertoire at SUNY Purchase. His solo piece that night was some of my first exposure to the elusive, unnameable jazz harmony I’d soon hear from the Miles Davis Quintet and many others. Formative experiences. Eternally grateful for all he gave us.

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David R. Adler

Writer, guitarist and music educator based in Wakefield, United Kingdom.