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Interviews

Greg Burk: Everyone Should Be Present

By Published: November 14, 2005
AAJ: "Prelude to Surrender is a solo piano piece. This one is very elusive to me; I like it very much but it's hard for me to describe or pin down. One part of it seemed like Debussy fused with stride piano. Over its six minutes, it changes in terms of content and style—it's like a subtle sort of suite where the sections morph and mutate. But it also seems improvised to me; how composed is it?

GB: Well, at the beginning of that piece I play a fragment of the melody that starts off the next piece, "Truth Be Bold.

AAJ: Ah, that was my next question.

GB: Yeah, it's an intro that I improvised to the 19-minute tune that follows it. They really were played in that order. I didn't decide I was going to do a solo piece. We were just playing and Bob laid out and Steve laid out—and I just played [laughing]. You know, that came at the end of two days of recording. We recorded almost five CDs worth of material. I mean, there are just hours and hours of stuff. And I don't think I was thinking anything at that point. Maybe it was a suite, because maybe I was reliving parts of the things we had done over the course of the two days, remembering them. Or I knew we were going to play this tune ["Truth Be Bold ] and it's kind of a special tune to me, so this was kind of a discarding all of the other ideas that I had in mind so I could play it as freshly as possible. I don't know exactly, but you're right, I do go through a lot of styles in a succession and they kind of lead to one another in a weird way. It's kind of a mystery to me too, that tune [laughing].

I do a lot of solo playing, and I do a lot of recording; I used to record every six months in Boston—just go and record two, four hours of solo piano—and that's where a lot of the rubato material comes from. It's a process of discovering ideas that are either already there or are being developed as I'm discovering them, but it's composing as well. I don't really think of improvising as composing in the moment, like a lot of people do, because to me the key in an improvisation is the tension between the improviser and his or her material. So if that relationship is completely fresh, it's not like you're delving into some kind of information you've accumulated. Then it creates a certain tension that to me is the real satisfaction in doing it. Composing is an out-of-time process, as it should be, because you're trying to distill an idea to its clearest expression. Whereas with improvising—I think of it as trying to bring the moment into focus. You're trying to take the tension of what what you want to say and what you're saying and bring them close together. You know, 'Trane was a huge influence when I first started listening to jazz. And for me, that's the power of his music: it's the process he's going through when he's playing that is so powerful. More than the content of what's happening—which is fantastic as well.

AAJ: Yes, it's okay. Actually, I don't really hear any overt influences on this record. On the previous one, Carpe Momentum, I do feel I hear some McCoy Tyner and Coltrane.

GB: Yeah, definitely. Well, [saxophonist Jerry] Bergonzi was playing on that session; he's obviously listened to a lot of 'Trane. And when he would play things, it would spark and we would connect on that sort of idea there. But yeah, you're right. I feel that this is a more personal statement. Carpe Momentum is another record where it's a deliberate attempt to unite these two things—my inside playing and my outside playing, my rubato playing with my time playing—and see how many different ways I can try to put them together. And Bergonzi was the obvious choice for that, not just because I love playing with him. Like Swallow, he's got a whole side that you don't find on his records too often, so it was an opportunity to bring out that side of his music, too.

AAJ: I like that guy. I think he should be a bigger deal. But I haven't heard him so much in that outside context that you brought out on that session.

GB: Yeah, just rhythmically free. It's funny, because rubato playing is a lot harder to do than it seems because it's easy for the music to feel lethargic. Either lethargic or hyperactive—it's hard to balance those two poles, for me anyways. And when I listen to a lot of rubato music, I feel it pulling towards those two poles. So it's hard to balance those two things, and the people I enjoy hearing do that are people that have played both sides, like Swallow, Moses, Bley. And Jarrett, Gary Peacock—a lot of people in the sixties. I mean, Freddie Hubbard played on [Coltrane's] Ascension. It's like there are so many great musicians in the jazz world that don't play this way; what would Wynton Marsalis sound like playing rubato? Or a context like Ascension? I'm sure he would sound fantastic. But people are more attached now to their particular style, it seems. Maybe people were in the sixties, too, but but there were a lot of musicians doing both.


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