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Greg Burk: Everyone Should Be Present

By Published: November 14, 2005
AAJ: Well, let's talk about "Truth Be Bold. I have already learned that you very much intended "Prelude to Surrender to precede "Truth Be Bold. "Truth Be Bold is this enormous centerpiece to the album. It's the most open, rubato piece, it's 19 minutes long and all three of you play fantastically on it, and for that matter, imaginatively. Is this completely improvised, and if so, is the improv linked by any sort of written material or cues?

GB: There is a written melody that the piece opens with that you can also hear a fragment of in the beginning of "Prelude to Surrender. And that melody itself was improvised on the duo record. Bob and I did a duo record and I played this melody; I improvised it. When we were mixing, Bob said, "whoa, stop everything! That's a tune, go back! [laughing] So I transcribed that from the improvisation and it became the head to that tune. Beyond that, it's all improvised.

We're just trying to be in the moment, basically, to hear what everyone is doing and be fearless about playing what comes up to play. And the result, to me, is pretty magical—especially considering I hadn't played with Swallow before the session. But I knew we could connect. So yeah, it's all improvised and it was exactly the way it is on the record, and you're right—it's really the clearest and strongest expression of the rubato playing from the recording we did. It's like a journey, 20 minutes of traveling, and I was following Steve and Bob as much as they were following me. It builds, it goes into delicate openings, it builds again, then there are new kinds of textures; it all moves very organically. And that was the goal, I suppose. We sort of hint at the melody again at the end, like you would playing a standard. It's there, it's just not stated completely.

AAJ: Let's talk about my other favorite song on the album, "Operetta. Swallow's bass is so wonderful and is so contrapuntal to your piano that it feels like a tight-threaded duet between the two of you. In its rigor and richness of musical content, this piece feels so composed—and yet I don't think it is.

GB: No, that one's not composed. There's a head, and that's composed, but the rest is just sort of the shadow that the head casts. There's a vibe set up by the melody and we start by playing off of that vibe, trying to make a continuity so that there's no separation between the head, that melody and its intent, and the improvisation. And then it's all improvised, and you're right—I was really attuned, and trying to tune in as much as I could, to what Swallow was playing. I was trying to service that melody of his, and trying to react and play what would make it come out. Just like you say, weaving it together. I wrote that tune right before the session.

AAJ: There's something very uneasy and hallucinatory about "Operetta to me.

GB: In a different way from the other rubato piece?

AAJ: Yeah. It's got a very beautiful melody—and it is a continuous melody, even if the first part is written and the rest works around improvisationally. It's deeply melodic, but there's some strangeness to it to me.

GB: Hallucinatory, huh. Well, the melody itself—for the session, I wanted to try some of the tunes I wrote for that previous session I did a week before. I wrote them a few weeks before that. I just sang them and wrote them down; I didn't go to the piano. Which was a new thing for me, and maybe that's why—in a way, the whole project was trying to go beyond the instruments and go to the source of the music, to bring out the complete musical picture of the musician and what we could do together. Singing the melody, maybe, was way for me to get away from my instrument and tap that in a different way. So maybe when we played it, that was the point of departure; something that was not connected to the mechanics of the instrument, or, say, "A-flat major, which I've played a thousand times. It was more connected to that singing of the melody. And, you know, that tune is also kind of about my upbringing, because opera was a big part of my childhood. My first performances as a musician were in operas. My dad was a conductor and he used to put on operas in Michigan at the Mid-Michigan Opera Company. There was always a child part, so I was, like, the little boy who discovers the dead body [laughing].

AAJ: Must have been a drag when you grew out of those roles.

GB: It was. Adolescence—you're not the little boy, but you can't be the villain. So anyway, I was involved in that and I heard that music, so that tune tries to reconnect with that.

AAJ: I think there's a rigorousness to your piano playing. A crispness and clarity to your articulation that gives your improvised phrases a certain authority and a composed quality—in addition to the imagination behind them.

GB: I don't think about articulation. I was never a successful classical musician; as much classical music as I heard, I never really learned to play any difficult repertoire. It was because I was too bored repeating the music over and over—I wanted to improvise, to do something else. So I never developed that kind of deliberate articulation. I would say that that kind of articulation probably comes from playing tunes and standards and time and swing. Anything that grooves. I think it comes from the discipline of learning a discipline, like playing over changes and bebop. You have to be clear in your phrases; they have to have a beginning and an ending, they have to have a rhythmic variety—there's a lot you can develop there. And maybe that gives my open playing that quality of composed intent. Like I said, my favorite free players went through that at some point. They went through the discipline of learning tunes and playing in time and over changes.

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