Gary Burton: Forging Ahead
In the jazz world, music that would come to be called fusion was coming to the forefront. Bands like Tony Williams Lifetime, Return to Forever and Weather Report were on the scene and Miles had plugged in and was even distorting his distinctive trumpet sound with the use of wah-wah pedals. Burton was also a part of the movement, though he feels under-credited in that section of history.
"When I first started playing this way in '67, the press first named it jazz-rock. About 1970, the word fusion appeared," he says. "Then it became jazz fusion from then on. It didn't really seem to get the stamp of approval until '69-'70, when Miles put out Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969). That was deemed to be not only a fusion record, but it was by Miles, so it must be alright to play this way because Miles has decided to do it. That put the stamp of approval on this style of music. But it had been around for a few years already by that time.
"Ironically, I didn't really stay with it a whole lot longer. There's a limit to how loud the vibraphone can be. As more and more amplification entered the picture, with synthesizers and more electric guitars, it was an area that I couldn't go into. My music has stayed somewhere on a mellower side of where fusion ended up. I still continued playing songs that were not in swing time, but the kind of rhythms that were familiar in rock music. And harmonic structures that were not jazz-like, but more pop music or rock-like. But without the same sounds as, say, the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever, where synthesizers became one of the dominant sound characteristics of the bands."
He adds, "I've been told that by people who have come up to me. It bugs them when they read fusion started with Miles' record or something and they say, 'You started that three years earlier.' I didn't get the credit for it the way some people tell the history, but I'm not complaining about it. I don't feel I was cheated or anything. I think some people just didn't connect to it until it got that big, then they started listening to it and didn't notice it happened to have begun with my band. But often it gets mentioned, even sometimes in historical things, writing about my group it'll say I was the forerunner of this style of jazz but often haven't been credited for it, for whatever reasons. That's just the way it happened, I guess."
There are a couple things that Burton hopes he is known for.
"I feel like if I wanted to give a capsule, summation, of what I'd like to take credit for in my career, one would be my contributions to how to play the vibraphone, my four-mallet technique that kind of changed the role of the vibes. The next thing would be that I popularized this thing of playing in duets. We weren't the first to play, just two musicians in jazz. But it was rarely done. There's a fairly limited history of this until Chick Corea and I started doing it. Now it's become a much more established format for jazz musicians. The fact that we stuck with it has played a role in establishing that," he says.
That long and fruitful association, which resulted in album gems like Crystal Silence (ECM, 1972), came about in an off-hand way. Burton says he jammed with Corea at a festival in Germany. Manfred Eicher, founder of ECM, was there and thought it would be good to record the two musicians together. "I said, 'Come on. Who wants to listen to a whole hour of just piano and vibes?'" Burton recalls. "But he was persistent. We made that first record and all of a sudden we were getting all kinds of calls from people who wanted to book a concert, they wanted us to come and play. That was 35 years ago. Six records later and five Grammys later we're still doing it."
Over those 35 years, Burton has always felt a special spirit with Corea. The result is evidenced in the recordings.
"You have some level of rapport with any musician that you sit down to play with. On a scale of 1 to 10, it might be minimal with some musicians who never felt settled, managed to get through some tunes, but no great sparks were happening. You might rate it as a 2. Then there are players who are great to play with, an 8 or a 9. The thing that happened with Chick is that it was a 10 or off the chart. Almost from the beginning, we had an ability to kind of mind-read each other. We had a sense of where we were going next and what was going to happen next. That results in an awful lot of that spontaneous music that you always hope for in improvised music when you're playing with other players. With us, it seemed to be a natural, easy thing to do.
"And it's continued all this time. We thought for years that one of these days we were going to start to feel bored with this. We'll feel like we've done it and it's time to move on. But it still seems fun to play. We're going out this July for some more concerts and we're talking about our next record project. So it seems to go on."
He notes that "rapport-wise, I've been lucky to have some long relationships with a few players. [Steve] Swallow was certainly one of them. We played together for over two decades. And Pat [Metheny], who, although we haven't played constantly over this past 30 years, we've continued doing projects off and on and stayed in touch, musically. We're very good friends. I feel very lucky and honored to have had these long-running relationships in my music. There are things that develop over the years when you play with people that much that you just aren't going to get with new players."
Burton has received numerous awards from the jazz industry over his career. Of his Grammys with Corea, Burton says he is always appreciative. "I had sort of a streak going. I've won Grammys in the '70s, the '80s, the '90s and this was my last year to get one in this decade. So I was glad that we won again. Also, it makes me feel that I'm still in the game," says the vibraphonist. "It's funny, you win polls and get awards all the time in this business, and after a while it doesn't mean much. But for some reason, the Grammy seems to. Even though it's hardly a true test of musicianship or anything. It gets to you."