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Gary Burton & Chick Corea: Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79


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Gary Burton & Chick Corea: Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79
It's a story that's been told before, but it's worth repeating. Pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton were performing individually at a 1972 Munich festival, and ended up as the only two artists at a late night jam session. While the two had attempted working together in the 1960s, it was in a quartet context that never seemed to work—in no small part due to the challenge of combining two chordal instruments without getting in each other's way.

Curiously, without a rhythm section, there was an instantaneous simpatico that quickly caught the ear of ECM label head Manfred Eicher. Corea had already recorded A.R.C. (1971) for the still-fledgling German label, with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul, as well as two days of largely solo piano improvisations that would be released as Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 (1971) and Piano Improvisations Vol. 2 (1972). Corea's duet album of intimate chamber jazz with Burton was a perfect fit for ECM's pristine and transparent approach to capturing sound, and so the two went into Arne Bendiksen Studio in Oslo on November 6, 1972, and recorded Crystal Silence (1973) in a single day.

Despite the magic of Crystal Silence, there were no high expectations for its release. Burton, speaking at a public interview in Portland, Oregon in 2007, said that nobody expected the album to sell more than a few thousand copies, but surprisingly it caught on and has since become one of the label's more popular titles, still doing well over 35 years after its release. It also turned into a career-long association for Corea and Burton, who continue to play together every year and, while recording together less frequently, have still turned out five additional albums including 2008's The New Crystal Silence (Concord).

The four-CD Crystal Silence -The ECM Recordings 1972-79 collects three of the four albums that Corea and Burton recorded for the label—1973's Crystal Silence, the 1979 follow-up, Duet, and 1980's live Zürich, October 28, 1979. (1983's Lyric Suite for Sextet, being not strictly a duo recording, is omitted). While the individual albums remain in print on CD, it's the reissue of In Concert in full—aside from a very brief two-disc set many years ago, it's only been available as a single disc set that omits side three of the original two-LP set—that's the real carrot. With two lengthy solo performances back in—Burton playing a medley of Steve Swallow's "I'm Your Pal" and "Hullo, Bolinas," and Corea turning "Love Castle," first heard in an electric group setting on My Spanish Heart (Polydor, 1976), into a lengthy tour-de-force—Crystal Silence -The ECM Recordings 1972- 79 is a compelling reason to revisit the beginnings of this groundbreaking duo.

Chapter Index
  1. Crystal Silence
  2. Duet
  3. In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979
From a repertoire perspective, Crystal Silence sets the direction for all of the duo's ECM recordings. With the exception of Michael Gibbs' dark-hued ballad, "Feelings and Things," everything is either written by Corea or Burton's (at that time) longtime musical partner, bassist Steve Swallow.

The opening "Señor Mouse" also sets high expectations for what was to follow: instant evidence of a duo whose chordal instruments not only don't get in each other's way, but which mesh into a mini-orchestra of sorts, covering three essential components—melody, harmony/accompaniment and rhythm—while seamlessly tossing them around like a kind of musical tag-team. Most athletic teams work with a fixed plan, however; Corea and Burton (despite unequivocally operating with structured and often highly detailed music) shift responsibilities amongst themselves, often with real-time spontaneity. The result is music that may be of a chamber jazz variety, and certainly goes to gentler places, but is equally capable of terrific energy and excitement.

Corea contributes two tunes that had already been heard on Return to Forever (ECM, 1972), an album that signaled a significant directional shift for the pianist away from more challenging music with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul in the much-lauded group Circle. Despite the absence of bassist Stanley Clarke, saxophonist Joe Farrell, percussionist Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim from Return to Forever, the duet's version of Corea's bright "What Game Shall We Play Today" closes Crystal Silence on an equally joyous note, with piano and vibraphone orbiting around each other, coming together in buoyant unison and veering off into individual solos that prove it's possible to be both virtuosic and eminently accessible. The nine-minute title track is the definitive version: unencumbered by the constraints of a larger ensemble, Corea and Burton create a soundscape of remarkable beauty and depth, one filled with nuance, as the subtle interaction of two come together with the singular intent of one.

Corea and Burton also turn in definitive versions of Swallow's "Arise, Her Eyes," a song that manages to swing as much through implication as direct pulse, the balladic "I'm Your Pal," where hints of gospel peak through its more sophisticated changes, and the livelier "Falling Grace" where, in under three minutes, the duo interweaves with the kind of effortless perfection that imbues Crystal Silence with such flawless elegance. Despite plenty of spots where Corea and Burton shine individually, it's their empathic interaction throughout the entire album that raised the bar for all duet recordings to follow.

It would be almost six years to the day before Corea and Burton would reconvene in a studio, this time in Sheridan, Oregon and without the presence of Eicher, to record the follow-up to Crystal Silence.

By this time Corea, who had become a fusion leader with his more electrified Return to Forever featuring Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White, had dissolved that group and headed into both a larger ensemble Return to Forever and more orchestrated solo albums including My Spanish Heart and The Leprachaun (both Polydor, 1976) and The Mad Hatter (Polydor, 1978). While he had begun to veer in that direction, Duet signaled a more definitive return to acoustic interests, resulting in a string of ECM albums that included the reformation of his Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968) trio with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes for 1982's remarkable Trio Music, 1984's solo Children's Songs and the chamber ensemble of Septet (1985).

Duet reflects many of the compositional lessons Corea had learned with his other projects but, as ever, the pianist found ways to paradoxically simplify instrumentally, yet engage on a more complex level, his duo with Burton. The 15-minute "Duet Suite" opens the album on a bright note but, with a knotty melody that Corea and Burton deliver in unison, with the same degree of facility as on Crystal Silence, it's proof (as if any were needed) that they were still capable of doing more than just capturing notes off the written page. Instead, even the most serpentine of melodies—and there are many, just in the episodic "Duet Suite" alone—are played with both Corea and Burton intuiting each other's most understated nuance of expression, and feeling as profoundly as they perform impressively. The influence of Corea's Spanish roots, which surfaced as early as "Señor Mouse" but became deeper and more integrated in the intervening years, are heard as well, contributing to a percussive approach to pianism that has defined Corea ever since.

Burton brings two lesser-known Swallow tunes to the session. "Radio," like many of Swallow's best tunes, swings with effortless elegance, even as Burton's solo expands on Swallow's singable theme with an eclectic lyricism that never loses sight of where it began. Corea combines a hard-walking left hand with chordal syncopation that's at once responsive to Burton's lead and suggestive of new places to go, leading to a solo piano section that's a highlight of the disc. "Never" is a softer tune, swinging more gently, and while it's easy to imagine a rhythm section driving the piece it's not a matter of it being missed. It's an unparalleled blend, with Corea's firm touch balanced by the more ethereal nature of Burton's vibraphone, even when hard mallets create their own kind of percussive timbre.

In addition to Corea's newly written "Song to Gayle," the duo winds its way through four more of the pianist's "Children's Songs," structured miniatures that are Corea's answer to classical composer Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos series of progressive piano pieces. Bartók was a significant influence on Corea, and the duo would even go on to record two of the Hungarian composer's "Bagatelles" on Native Sense: The New Duets
The duo closes the album with another rework of a Return to Forever piece. As with the other tunes from Return to Forever that found their way to Crystal Silence, the greater freedom afforded by what Burton has described as "having a conversation with your best friend" allows the two to find their way to the relentless, Spanish-tinged rhythm of "La Fiesta" via a more unencumbered exchange. It also demonstrates just how much their chemistry had evolved, and an even more consummate ability to create individual and collective improvisations at the deepest possible level.

No surprise, then, that almost a year to the day after Corea and Burton wrapped up the recording of Duet, they found themselves in Zürich, performing in front of an audience at Limmathaus. If there was any doubt that Crystal Silence and Duet were in-the-moment, unedited albums of near-perfection, the chance to hear the duo live, from a single performance, put any such thoughts to rest. Opening the concert with the same track that began Crystal Silence, the fiery "Señor Mouse" is delivered with even greater energy, virtuosity and dynamics, hard though it may be to believe it possible.

Of the eight duet tracks on this now-restored double-disc set, most of it comes from the two previous studio discs, including an even more sublime version of "Crystal Silence" that also turns more decidedly percussive during Corea's solo. Still, there's room for some new material from Corea, including the bebop-tinged "Bud Powell," which would become a staple in later acoustic groups, the brightly lyrical "Tweak," and change-heavy but equally thematic "Mirror, Mirror.

The restoration of what was originally side three of In Concert is not only valuable as a chance to hear both players in unaccompanied solo pieces, but when taken as a whole it re-establishes the arc of the performance. Just as great consideration is given to the sequencing of tracks on an album (with ECM being particularly astute in terms of creating a narrative whole, largely due to Eicher's involvement in the process), the dynamic ebb and flow of a concert performance is often given the same attention. While the previous single-disc edition of In Concert was good, restoring Burton's solo medley of Swallow's "I'm Your Pal" and "Hullo, Bolinas," and Corea's even lengthier expansion of his own compelling "Love Castle"—stretched from My Spanish Heart's original five minutes of detail and structure to well over fourteen minutes of compelling invention spontaneity—returns it to being great.

One challenge in live performance is having less control over stage sound, as opposed to that afforded in the studio. The result is that musicians sometimes compensate for a lesser ability to hear each other down to the minutest nuance, and a tendency to play more and use space less. That's clearly not the case here; while Corea and Burton's virtuosic capabilities are enhanced by the energy of feeding off a live audience on "Señor Mouse," they lose none of their attention to the decay of a note or the lengthy sustain of an atmospheric harmony on "Crystal Silence." It's a testimony to the intense degree to which they listen to each other, and a chemistry that has continued to evolve, even to this day, that makes In Concert such a vivid document of Corea and Burton live, where particular writing combines seamlessly with effortless improvisational abandon and unfailing attention to detail—both individual and collaborative.

As Corea and Burton continue to perform together every year, but with recordings few and far between, Crystal Silence—The ECM Recordings 1972-79 comes at a perfect time to celebrate not just the significant milestone of ECM's 40th anniversary, but a musical relationship that is also nearing its fifth decade. Whether or not they'll record again as a duo for the label is uncertain; but in the meantime, Crystal Silence -The ECM Recordings 1972-79 documents where it all began, collecting three individual releases that, taken together, changed the way that musicians and fans alike looked at the most open and vulnerable of all collaborative settings.

Track Listing

CD1 (Crystal Silence): Señor Mouse; Arise, Her Eyes; I'm Your Pal; Desert Air; Crystal Silence; Falling Grace; Feelings and Things; Childrens Song; What Game Shall We Play Today.

CD2 (Duet): Duet Suite; Children's Song No. 15; Children's Song No. 2; Children's Song No. 5; Children's Song No. 6; Radio; Song to Gayle; Never; La Fiesta.

CD3 (In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979, Disc One): Señor Mouse; Bud Powell; Crystal Silence; Tweak.

CD4 (In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979, Disc Two): I'm Your Pal/Hullo, Bolinas; Love Castle; Falling Grace; Mirror, Mirror; Song to Gayle; Endless Trouble, Endless Pleasure.


Gary Burton

Chick Corea: piano; Gary Burton: vibraphone.

Album information

Title: Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79 | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ECM Records



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