Debbie Kruger
Julian Coryell
January/February 2000

by Debbie Kruger

His pop debut album is called Bitter to Sweet, a title that aptly reflects the life, both musical and personal, of 26 year-old Julian Coryell.

With most of that life already spent immersed in the jazz world, and three jazz instrumental albums under his belt, Coryell's decision to switch focus and devote himself to pop music took many people by surprise. His father, jazz guitar great Larry Coryell, resisted his son's abandonment of the faith and, according to Julian, there is still friction between them over the issue.

But, ironically, it was the greatest of jazz legends who inspired the younger Coryell to stray from his roots and find himself in other musical playing fields. Miles Davis lived in the Coryell family home for a time during the late 1970s. "I was a little boy but I just always remembered his presence and his charisma," recalls Coryell. "That wonderful energy that comes with somebody who's always young at heart and who's always searching." Some years later, at age 14, he took a tape of his jazz compositions over the Davis's house, "very naively hoping that he would hear my guitar playing and want me to play in his band, like every other schmuck at that age.

"And he asked me, 'What are you giving me?' I said, 'Well, this is some jazz stuff.' He says, 'Well, there's no pop music on there. Jazz is easy. Pop music's what's hard.' And I remember it really knocked me on my butt. I'm just thinking, this is the guy who was responsible for creating a huge legacy of what peoples still consider to be the viable jazz idiom, and he is telling me the challenge doesn't necessarily lie in that. I was always very repressed with my love of pop music because I thought I had to be a certain type of musician or artist, I thought I was being groomed to be a certain type of musician or artist."

His jazz breeding and his classical training on the violin governed his earliest compositions — Coryell has been writing since the age of five — but in many ways he was just going through the motions. "My heart wasn't really in it as much as my intellect was." Out of the closet came Coryell's true musical passions, the songwriters and performers from the British pop scene. Graham Parker, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello were key influences, but ultimately it all went back to the Beatles and gradually showed up in his songwriting. "As far as being conscious of melody and lyrics and the marriage of the two, it was always just through the Beatles. I was always so fascinated by the symmetry and the perfection of some of those songs."

"I tried for years to be a clever writer, the kind of writer where you listen to the words and say, 'God that's so thoughtful, so intelligent, he must have spent months working on that lyric, how did he come up with that little phrase?' I'm still finding my feet, but I think it's safe to say that that's not my style at this point in time. And I also think that the singer-songwriter genre as a whole is very tired, as is most music at the end of the century, so I'm not about to get on a stage and ask people to indulge in my self-indulgence, unless I'm going to try to bring something to the table that's different. I'm somewhat naively, definitely ambitiously, trying to put a slant on this genre which is so inundated with so much of the same ideas and sensibilities.

A prolific writer, Coryell had some 300 songs to choose from when he and producer Niko Bolas began production on Bitter to Sweet. The 12 chosen present an honest picture of the emotional life of a young man in his late teens and early twenties with his soul bared open. His tendency to question and doubt is perhaps most clearly articulated on his first single, "Song For Cynics." But lyrics are not necessarily Coryell's preferred way of communicating an emotion, and nor does he view himself as a singer-songwriter in the "traditional" style. He is unpredictable, punctuating certain songs with a brutal, jarring electric guitar sound deliberately to provoke a response.

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