Gary Burton: Forging Ahead
Speaking of his preference for a wide range of musical styles and influences, Burton notes "I had kind of a confrontation once with (record producer) Creed Taylor, who approached me about doing a record for his label back in the '60s. He had listened to two or three of my records. He picked out two or three songs he felt had the right combination of what would be most commercial. His concept, as he presented it to me, was: 'We want to do album that sounds just like those songs.' I just couldn't figure out how to deal with that. It was so opposite of my approach to making music.
"My main performing situation was playing in front of audiences and the challenge with that is to keep the audience's attention. You don't do that by playing one after the other that all sound the same. You had to change things up constantly. Change the volume level and the pace and the type of song. Some are energetic, some are beautiful, some are melancholy. You have to constantly change the moods and what's going on onstage to hold an audience. I continue to make my records that way, unless it's a really unusual special project. My instinct is to program it like a performance."
He jokes that in today's music scene, such careful planning of presentation on a recording may all be for naught.
"It's becoming less of an issue now that people don't even buy the whole album any more. They go in and buy two or three tracks. And they put it on 'shuffle' when they do get it. [chuckles] All that work I go through to make sure they're sequenced in a nice program order and everything sometimes goes to waste. Pat [Metheny] and I sat around talking about it when we were mixing this record. We put all this effort into getting the sound the way we think is best; the balance of the bass, the order of the songs and all that sort of thing. Then people go home and the first thing they do is change the settings. Boost the bass. Turn this down. Turn that up. Then rearrange the order. We get a chuckle out of it."
l:r: Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Antonio Sanchez, Steve Swallow
In the album notes, Metheny is very complimentary and erudite about how he enjoyed playing with Burton as a young and growing musician. As for Burton, he knew there was something about Metheny, one of today's most highly regarded guitarists, that was special.
Says Burton, "There's that expression, 'a diamond in the rough.' And even that is almost not fair to him. His talent, to me, was instantly obvious. I heard him first at a college jazz festival out in Kansas. He came up to me and asked if he could sit in. I was there by myself to play with the college band. I didn't have my band or anything. I first told him it's not possible, I'm just a guest here myself. But he was persistent. We worked out a plan to do one song together. It was 'Walter L.' I stayed around that afternoon to hear him play in the student combo that he was in. I think he would have been 18 years old around that time. I saw then he was a talented player. It was just a matter of getting more experience and smoother execution and so on. He asked me for advice. I said move to a city with a very active jazz scene. That pretty much meant New York or Boston.
"A few months later he called me and said he was coming to Boston. He didn't know anyone in New York. He arrived and immediately became pretty active playing locally. We played a lot together at my house. Within the year, I decided to add him to my band. I already had a guitarist. I didn't want to get rid of him He was one of the best players I ever had, Mick Goodrick. It worked out perfectly, because Pat was the second guitarist. We had two guitars for about a year. Pat grew as a player probably even faster, because Mick was a natural teacher and mentor for him. To me, it was obvious all along that (Metheny) was going to be a big success ... He's been amazingly able to straddle commercial success with artistic success probably better than anybody I've ever seen in the jazz field. It's a pleasure to work with him, take on these projectsside-by-side decide what to play, how to do them and how to make the record and so on. "
"I learn tons from him now," muses Burton. "He talks about me being a big influence for him and all that. But it's also turned around now. I learn all kinds of things every time we do a project now. He's so good knowing how to record, how to produce things. Even his concert programming and presentation experience is something I'm always learning from."
Burton has always been learning, curious and eager as a youngster. Even as a child, he became focused on the vibraphone, somewhat unusual because many of the famous vibes players started out on other instruments before gravitating toward the melodic vibes.
"Until my generation, I don't think there are any vibes players that started on the vibes. The vibes was only invented in 1930. I came along 20 years later and started playing in 1949. Up to that point there was Hamp (Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, and Milt (Milt Jackson) and Terry Gibbs. But Milt was a guitarist first. Red was a xylophonist first, which is at least close to the vibes. Hamp was a drummer. I think me and Bobby Hutcherson were the first guys who started on the vibes and went ahead to become established players."
Burton's parents wanted their children to take music lessons. His sister was playing piano and Burton enjoyed watching her play. "They looked around and found out there was a woman in the neighborhood that played the marimba and the vibraphone. They took me there to start taking lessons, which I did. But we moved about a year later to an even smaller town in Indiana. From then on, I was on my own.
"So when people ask me how I learned, I say I'm self-taught, because from age seven on, I was. I got a start from a teacher, but as far as learning my concept of how to play the vibraphoneplaying with four mallets, playing my jazz approachthat was something I put together myself."
Burton received a solid music education in grade school and high school, participating in the band program. But, "jazz wasn't included in that experience. That was something I stumbled into. How, I don't know. I came across a record player. I must have been 12 years old, roughly. I was finding records and happened to pick up a Benny Goodman record and I was mesmerized. Here was this exciting energetic music with all this improvising going on. I could see myself playing this. How do I do this? So I immediately began finding jazz records however I could ... that's really how I got into jazz."
In his senior year of high school, he studied jazz harmony with a piano teacher. "I could hear what was going on, on the records, but I didn't know what to call things. It was getting hard to figure out and catalog in my mind. I needed to know how it was organized and what you called this chord and that chord. He was great. He filled in my basic information and put me in good shape for going on to college the next year at Berklee. Even there, I was a piano major because there was no vibraphone teacher. It turned out to be an advantage, actually, because I learned a lot from studying piano music for a couple years. It affected my thoughts and vision of how to play the vibes and introduced me to classical music, as well."
Vibes players were not much of an influence on the young Burton. "There weren't many records I could find with vibes players. The only records I could find easily were Milt Jackson's. He was very popular in the '50s with the Modern jazz Quartet. Meanwhile, I was listening more to piano players and horn players.
"Probably the single most influential jazz musician that I ever credit is Bill Evans, who I discovered when I was finishing high school, going on to college. He started to emerge and was influential. I was very struck by the classical style of his playing and how expressive he was on the piano. I felt I could translate a lot of what he was doing to my playing on the vibraphone. He became a very major influence for me during my formative years, where you sort of synthesize your own style and approach tom your instrument.
Later on it tends to be more of a refinement process of what you have founded. It was that formative period that Bill was such an influence, along with some of the great horn players, in terms of being inspired by the great soloing ability of Miles, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane. They were all important to me, as well."
Years later he came to the early records of Red Norvo, Jackson's recordings, those of Bobby Hutcherson, and some of Hampton's earlier releases.
Before he could get any band experience, Burton would record himself comping piano chords on a reel-to-reel recorder, then play it back and play vibes over the chords. "I did that for a year or two as a way of getting to play," he says. When his family moved closer to Evansville, he found a record store and also other high school kids who into jazz. "Once a month we would try to get together at somebody's house and have a jam session and that sort of thing. Things picked up when I got a driver's license. Then I could go on my own, drive down in the evenings and go to the two or three places that actually had live bands. They played jazzy type of stuff. It was lounge music, but they were playing standards, improvising."
"I managed to get myself a job playing at a restaurant with a trio. It was the drummer's band. I impressed him enough to get hired. I kind of doubled on piano and vibes. We played jazzy sounding standards. People danced sometimes. I did that job for my last year of high school. It was a great experience because it was a steady job every night, I got playing experience, learned more songs, became more polished as a performer and so on. If there's a will, there's a way. You'll find a chance to play, one way or another."
But Burton wasn't sure about following music as a career. "Music was something that was easy for me and fun. I knew I learned stuff quickly and was good at it compared to other kids who didn't seem to have a talent for it. But I was a straight-A student in school. My father was a chemical engineer. I figured I would either go to medical school or engineering school, one or the other, when I went to college. Because I had the grades for it. Following in my father's footsteps.
"I changed my plans the summer before my senior year in high school. I went to the first-ever jazz band camp, which happened to be at Indiana University. It was called the Stan Kenton Band Camp. He was the host. It was 1958. That week I met 150 other kids that were talented and enthusiastic, just like me. And all these great teachers, as well. Shelly Manne was the drum teacher.
They brought in a lot of players from California, New York, Boston and Chicago to organize bands and rehearse during the week. I came back so excited from this that I announced to my parents I'd changed my mind and was going to try to make it in music. To their credit, they didn't panic. They said OK. From that point on, it was all about music for me. That's when I started working at the restaurant at night and started thinking about what music school to go to. There were really only two choices at that time. Two schools in the country welcomed a jazz musician, particularly a jazz vibes player. One was North Texas and the other was Berklee."
Metheny decided on Berklee after a trip to North Texas State showed the area was nearly as isolated at the time as his home in Indiana. "Sight unseen, I signed up for Berklee and that's where I went to go to school and get my foot in the door."