My Father's Gun

As a rag-tag group of musicians in their early 20s assembled in the dim light of the stage area at the Pheonica Inn on Saturday night there weren't many visible clues to indicate the kind of music they were about to play. You set yourself for anything from hip-hop to country-bop. When vocalist and lead guitarist, Murali Coryell, launched into a lazy, lilting Blues ala King (B.B. or Albert), the tone was placed and the playing field configured but the stark simplicity of the rhythm & blues format melded into something a bit beyond the usual after the first few numbers.

As the group warmed to the set, their sound became increasingly embellished with jazz-finger sensibilities and Coryell's solos began to display a character, strength and personality beyond the R&B cover tunes they were playing. He started to sound like he was born with a guitar in hand. Small wonder.

Murali is the son of Larry Coryell, a jazz-rock legend who first rose to prominence in the late 60s. But it's not what you think.

"Everybody seems to think that because my dad is Larry Coryell that I started playing really young. But it's exactly the opposite," Murali said. "When your parents do something and you're expected to- the natural tendency is to rebel, literally I think, as a young person. I just felt that there was so much pressure..."

Fluent in French and Spanish, Murali began studying Russian and political science because of a "wild dream," as he put it, "to become an ambassador to the then Soviet Union to try to bring about world peace." He picked up a guitar at 15 but didn't begin to take it seriously until 2 years later when he attended the National Guitar Summer Workshop at Milford, Conn., a camp he now attends as instructor.

"I saw what you've got to do to get good...practice a lot, play with people. Classes from 9 in the morning to 8 at night and a concert afterwards- that's what got me serious," Murali explained, adding that a month later, when he started college in New Paltz, he began attending every gig and jam he could find, playing every chance he got. Soon, The Ambassadors were founded and eventually his majors switched to music theory and composition. He attributes some of this change of heart and direction to his change of residence.

"I grew up in Westport, Conn., where my dad still lives but when I went to New Paltz in 1987, I found it has such a diverse student body, you can totally be yourself there. You're accepted no matter what. The place I grew up was stuck-up a bit, snooty, if you're different and, coming from a musical, a creative family, I didn't always feel like I fit in- especially when I tried to. So, I was able to come to New Paltz and just start over."

An earlier version of The Ambassadors tried the N.Y.C. circuit a while, playing Murali's more jazz-oriented originals, "complicated chord changes- stuff like that-", but it didn't work at that time. "The real depressing thing is it's hard to get gigs with an original band," he sighed, confessing that he hasn'tj tried [Gary, not sure what the preceeding is supposed to be.] to write his own music for a while but plans to try some in his adopted r&b format, a music for which Murali professes great love; a music so emotional it can "rip your heart out at a gut level."

"You play the blues to get out of the blues," Murali pointed out. "You feel so much better afterwards, it's like therapy- dealing with emotions even if they're not there. You just bring them on because I think they're always just swirling around under the surface."

The Ambassador's version of Woke Up This Morning featured Murali's upturned, dancing notes ringing lightly enough to lift the sting out of the words but one of the band's strongest points has to be the impeccably studied inflections of his powerful, if slightly green, vocals. A singing style forged from a lengthy study of artists like B.B. King, Al green, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and others who he listens to "all the time." He has time to practice singing with them in the car on the way to gigs when he's not listening to the sports station.

Jeremy Baum, the group's keyboard player, turned in some fine solos, some of them recalling Jimmy Smith. His father, Arthur Baum, teaches jazz piano at New Paltz. Eric Winter's bass playing knit the sound together with a easy touch that bridged all forms between blues and its many derivative spokes. The drumming drew audible compliments from that part of the crowd that wasn't calling out for them to play a cover tune they knew. The father of drummer T. Xiques (pronounced hic-kiss) plays big band sax for Lisa Minelli.

Wait a minute. You met these guys in New Paltz? They just happen to have jazz backgrounds?

"Yeah, it's true. Isn't that funny? I never even thought about it...but a real interesting thing that may bring to the music is we never play a song the same way. Anytime you come to hear us it's going to be different. You might notice I'm up there leading and directing a bit," Murali said. "The drummer takes the solo on some songs and I don't always solo or Jeremy doesn't always solo or we all solo and the arrangement is different on the spot according to the way I'm feeling or reacting to the crowd."

Murali calls himself "a big Larry Coryell fan", who wasn't taught by dad but learned the solos from his records and played them for him. He appeared at a guitar festival in Martinique with his father last December and his brother, Julian, who Murali describes as a "very talented guitarist. He graduated from the Berkely School of Music in 2 years", has just returned from Indonesia following a tour with their father.

Meanwhile, Murali stays busy in the area, singing on the way to his regular Saturday night gigs at the Phoenica Inn, thursdays at the Downtown Tavern in Middletown and every other Wednesday at Cabaloosa's in New Paltz.

- Gary Alexander