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Gary Burton: A Lifetime of Collaborations

Chris M. Slawecki By

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When you first make a record, you always think, 'This is the best thing I've done.' And that lasts for anywhere from three to six months, and then you begin to get into the next project and IT becomes your big focus.
This interview was first published at All About Jazz in April 1999.

Vibraphonist, composer and teacher, Gary Burton was among the first modern jazz musicians to come out of the fertile American Midwestern musical ground from which Pat Metheny and others later grew. Born in Anderson, Indiana, Burton began his professional career while still a teenager, supporting country guitarist Hank Garland. He began to blossom as a solo artist in the early 1960s as one of the first proponents of the four-mallet style, recording his own dates for RCA in 1963; he toured with George Shearing that same year, and with Stan Getz from 1964 through '66.

By that time, Burton was leading his first of several influential, stellar ensembles, a Quartet with bassist Steve Swallow (later a frequent duet partner), guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Roy Haynes (and later Bob Moses). Thanks greatly to Coryell's electric mayhem, but also due in no small part to Burton's Midwestern and country roots, this Quartet was in retrospect one of the first jazz fusion ensembles.

Burton signed to ECM in the early 1970s, and the label's trademark European, neo-classical, crisp style seemed to rekindle Burton's own bright sound and vision. He formed an acclaimed New Quartet with guitarist Mick Goodrick, drummer Harry Blazer and bassist Abe Laboriel; gorgeous duet albums with Swallow, Ralph Towner and Chick Corea for ECM continued a genre Burton earlier started with one album each in tandem with Keith Jarrett and Stephane Grappelli.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Burton recorded in a variety of settings and ensembles for ECM, JVC, GRP and Concord Jazz, consistently pushing the boundaries of his music and musicians. During this period he also released several duets with Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla, and similar projects with Makoto Ozone and Corea; Burton's later ensembles included Metheny, Corea, Haynes, Dave Holland, John Scofield and John Patitucci.

In the early 1970s, Burton joined the faculty of Berklee College of Music, where he served from 1985 through 1995 as Dean of Curriculum, and remains as Executive Vice President. He spoke from his office at Berklee in tones as bright and conversational as his most sparkling vibraphone improvisation.

All About Jazz: How has being from the American Midwest impacted your music? Has it made you more sympathetic with other artists from the region, specifically Pat Metheny?

Gary Burton: Well, it certainly did in Pat's case. It was kind of a real identification; he reminded me so much of my own past. When I met him he was 19 years old and just ready to start his career, and that was just what I felt like and looked like and acted like when I was in my late teens getting my start, as well. And he has that same kind of Midwestern wholesomeness, that down to earth style that you get from growing up out there. It's a charming, refreshing thing. I wouldn't say that every Midwesterner that I've met connected that much with me, but Pat certainly did.

AAJ: What do you look for in a guitarist to play with?

GB: There's a wide range of styles, and it's true not only of guitar but of other instruments. There might be somebody who is a wonderful pianist, but not necessarily a good fit for my particular perspective and approach to the songs. One of the ways I judge this is by listening to what kind of material they are choosing to play, how they do it, how they interpret it, and that tells me whether it has similarities with my own. And I look for characteristics in their playing to see if it seems to reflect my own values as a player. What kinds of styles of playing, what kinds of interpretation —do they as a player indulge in cheap tricks? Or is it pretty consistently high quality? Are they able to play very consistently, or is it erratic—great moments followed by awkward moments followed by great moments and so on. Kind of weighing all those things, I will make an instinctive judgment of whether it would be a good match. But even then you don't know until you actually try it.

AAJ: What first attracted you to Larry Coryell's playing?

GB: That was an interesting choice, because in that case I had a radical vision in mind. This was 1966-67. I had this vision of a different kind of direction for my music. I had just left Stan Getz' band, playing traditional straight-ahead jazz, and was about to launch my own group, and I had this idea of using rock music as a major component, blending it in with jazz. To that point, rock and jazz were almost sort of enemies. Jazz people were very suspicious of rock music, looked down upon it, and also saw it as a threat to their own audience and their own survival.

I was 24 years old or so, and had discovered rock and was enjoying The Beatles and Bob Dylan and different groups and artists. I was increasingly attracted by this eclectic thing that rock had. If you put on a Beatles record, every tune was a different thing—one tune would be an Indian raga style thing, the next tune would be a shuffle, the next one would be a blues, the next one would be more of a straight-ahead rock thing, then it would be a string quartet, and I thought it was a wonderful range of options that they had open to them. So I wanted to break out of the bonds of the jazz world somewhat when I started my group, and I thought that going in this direction of trying to use rock music as an influence was the way I wanted to go.

I took my first booking for a week in a club, and was looking around for a band to put together to do it and ended up in a jam session where Larry Coryell was playing. He was there also, he was the friend of a drummer that I knew. Larry started playing and I said, "My gosh, here is the perfect guy." He came from a jazz background but he had arrived in New York and in order to get work had started taking gigs as the guitarist in rock bands. Just to have gigs, he really wanted to be a jazz musician. He ended up with this kind of strange blend of rock and jazz, it was pretty unusual for the time and it was exactly what I had in mind as well. So I asked him to do this first job with me, and that launched my band.

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