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Greg Burk: Everyone Should Be Present

By Published: November 14, 2005
AAJ: One thing I like about this album is that everything on it seems perfectly placed. The sequencing of the tunes serves the music, or seems to. For example, "Doves could only be the album closer. That song also might be that Steinway's greatest moment, but Moses is on a very high level on it, and Swallow's playing these low, long notes—the tune's got real tension and release. It's beautiful and ecstatic. But I can only imagine it at the end of the disc. Did you think much about the sequencing of the songs?

GB: Yes. I did, yeah. That brings up the point that the whole CD is definitely a composition in itself. The order of the tunes can bring that out. Just like the 20-minute tune is a trip that brings you somewhere—it goes through mystery, excitement and also moments of safety, of places to land. The order of tunes works the same way; it's got to have a momentum of its own. "Doves is actually another improvised piece. It was a coda to another tune that didn't make it on the record called "Ducks and Gulls.

AAJ: Two of your three albums so far are trio sessions. I'm wondering if this is your ideal band configuration. Is this how you want to work now?

BG: Absolutely. I love trio. It's the format that has always worked, and will always work, as long as there's jazz. The piano trio will be important because it's the distillation of all these elements that you can reduce to the fewest denominators. The more people in a band, the harder it is to account for what everyone is doing—especially if you want to do collective playing. For me, it's more difficult to really tune in when there's more people. But I've done a lot of solo playing; I love that. And I also have a quartet, the Carpe Momentum band. In that situation, I like to focus more on writing and it's a little more clear the way I'm trying to move the improvisation. A tune is more directed towards a certain context for improvising than in the trio, where it's easier to just let the music move organically. But I also play duo with Bob quite a bit, and that was a challenge and a rewarding experience for developing rubato playing. I suppose that the duo is even more distilled than the trio; is that too obvious to say?

AAJ: No, if anyone is saying obvious things here, it's not you. Speaking of tunes, we've talked about improvising and rubato. But you write good plain old songs, like "Blink to Be, "Big Bird, "Serena al Telefono, "Sweet My Honey Sweet, and "Look to the Lion, which you did with the Either/Orchestra. Are you a prolific writer? Do you have a lot of unrecorded songs?

GB: I do. Basically, when I started playing jazz, I started writing right away. That was when I was about sixteen and for the next ten years, I spent most of my time writing. Then I realized I needed to figure out a way to play the tunes, to be better at playing them, at making them mine. So I spent the next ten years working on playing, becoming a better pianist. Not that I didn't compose. I'd compose if I had a session and wanted to write something for the session, but I didn't compose on a regular basis. I wrote about a hundred tunes in those ten years. You know, writing's a very unpredicable thing. you do it when you can, and if you have the time and inspiration, you might have two tunes in a week—and then not write anything for a while. It's hard to control and fit into a schedule for me.

AAJ: Well, if it came too easily it would probably not be very good. A lot of formula.

GB: Yeah. Well, writing a melody is a combination of being spontaneous and very thoughtful. You have to be spontaneous to get that idea, that impulse—the melody's got to captivate you right away so you want to keep working on it. I found that I had to write everything in one sitting. One or two at the most. Otherwise, it just became this weird, amorphous, tortured thing trying to find itself [laughing]. And I have a lot tunes. I hope to record all of them, actually, and hope to write more too. But I'm happy now to have found a way to play them that's more representative of me, that has a clear identity. I couldn't do that when I wrote them.

AAJ: You were in Russ Gershon's Either/Orchestra for over four years and only left the group recently. That's such a longstanding band, and so unique that I think it must have been interesting. I was just listening today to the new double-CD Live in Addis, which the band did in 2004 at the Ethiopian Music Festival. That trip the band took to Addis Ababa must have been amazing. Can you tell me about it and a little about your whole E/O experience?

GB: Sure. I love to talk about my trip to Ethiopia [laughing]. I mean, it was a totally life-changing experience. It's something that I knew existed, but knew nothing about. So going there and discovering this incredible history and culture there, and then being able to study the music and play it with some Ethiopian musicans in Addis—they could never offer a package that good on any game show. It was the ultimate experience. Going to Ethopia was sort of the culmination of my tenure in the Either/Orchestra. The personnel hadn't really changed in, like, five years, and the band was always very cohesive. Everyone got along remarkably, which is unusual for ten people. And with that trip, it was like everyone congealed into the Either/Orchestra band entity on a whole other level because the experience was so strong being over there.

It's hard to say what stands out most from the Ethiopian trip because so many things were a shock. One was discovering the incredible history, another was seeing a Third World reality in person, another was collaborating with musicians from a whole other tradition. It's hard to isolate something that really captures it. But I'd say it was the band; something transformed in the band, and when we came back, we had, to me, the most incredible gigs. We were just so on the same wavelength. It was really powerful. I'm really excited about that CD because it was music we had played for years in the band—not all of it, some of it—and it's very open. It's the kind of thing where everyone is present in the music, all ten pieces, and you never get a sense that people are playing a secondary role.

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