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Gary Burton: On ECM & Playing With Pat Metheny

Mark Sullivan By

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They gave more care to the production side than most companies ever thought of doing for jazz. —Gary Burton
Vibraphonist Gary Burton was a busy man at the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival. He was a member of the Mack Avenue Superband (organized by Mack Avenue Records, his current record label), and joined Artist-in-Residence Pat Metheny for two shows. The Pat Metheny/Gary Burton Quartet Reunion took place on Saturday night, and the North American premiere of Metheny's "Hommage" for Eberhard Weber for soloists and big band closed the festival on Monday night. This interview took place backstage just before the final concert, so the initial focus was on the early years of the ECM record label (which has released a recording of the World Premiere of "Hommage") and preparing "Hommage" for performance. As the interview began we were discussing an ECM Showcase concert that took place around 1975.

Gary Burton: I remember doing it [the ECM Showcase tour]. Eberhard was there for it—you know it was quite an undertaking for ECM at that time. Pretty small label, and this was like a big jump to try to get visibility in the U.S. In the beginning they didn't even have U.S. distribution.

All About Jazz: I remember buying import LPs: those pressings were great.

GB: My first records that came out on the label—the only way people could get them was to order them. Only a few places did stock them, so I was almost surprised when the label actually kept on growing anyway.

They gave more care to the production side than most companies ever thought of doing for jazz. The typical jazz thing was throw the musicians in the studio for a day, two at the most, record as fast as you can, put it out. And Manfred [Eicher, founder of ECM] hired the best studios, the best engineers, took his time with everything, and so the quality was immediately just a notch above whatever was normal at the time. It was a pleasure being on that label. I was there sixteen/seventeen years.

AAJ: And now you're back.

GB: Well, I am. For Pat and I both this was a nice pleasant surprise. Manfred came to the concert in Stuttgart. We hadn't planned to make a CD of it. We recorded it for the radio, for Stuttgart Radio, and he came to the concert out of friendship with Eberhard and so on, and seemed to really enjoy it. It was nice to see him again. I hadn't seen him in three or four years probably. And then out of the blue he got in touch with Pat and said he'd like to put it out—in fact wanted to rush it out in time for the Grammy nominations for this year, and in time for this festival, where it would be performed again.

Besides the big piece with Pat, Jan Garbarek did a very nice thing playing along with Eberhard tracks. We did it twice, two nights in a row, in Stuttgart, and it was one of the most emotional things with Eberhard sitting there in the front row watching it all and we're all playing all these arrangements of his songs and paying tribute to him. It was a great experience.

AAJ: I'm very surprised that it wasn't intended for ECM release to start with. It seems like a perfect match.

GB: Well you see why... we didn't think of it as a record. It's this multimedia and the video, so what you hear on the record is the music, but it was really as you'll see on this giant screen as Eberhard is playing with us throughout the piece.

Pat did this really amazing thing. He edited all these video clips together—30 minutes' worth—and then wrote music that went with what Eberhard is playing on the screen, and turned it into sections, different changes of pace, color, everything. It's a really masterful accomplishment and he did it in a few weeks, 3-4 weeks from start to finish. I would think the editing of the stuff alone would have taken more than that, but he got this idea and asked to get some video clips of Eberhard which they provided for him and that's what he started out with. So we didn't think of it being anything but this live concert. We even said it's a shame we'll never get to play this again. And here we are playing it again and it's out on a record, and he's going to do it again in Japan.

He's going for a residency somewhere and they're really keen to do it so Scott's going to go over. The bass part's incredibly hard and Scott Colley just makes it seem like nothing. I can't think of more than two or three jazz bass players who could play this, so he's kind of indispensable to it. So he's going to fly over to do the Japanese performance, but that will probably be the last, because it's such a bear to set it all up.

AAJ: The other thing I thought would be interesting is to talk about the long relationship you've had with Pat, since it comes up a couple times at this festival.

GB: Yeah, 40-some years now. Let's see, 42 years that we've known each other and played off and on... It's interesting that I have the same timeline with Chick Corea.

With Chick, we've played from 1972 on, we've played every year till this year. This is the first year we're not actually going to have some little tour during the year. He's touring the whole year with Herbie Hancock. Anyway, I met Pat at the same time, met him in Wichita at a college jazz festival. He was a student at the time at the University of Miami, but he's from Kansas City, so he was friendly with the people in Wichita. And they invited him to come up if he wanted to be on the festival. So he took the bus all the way from Miami to Wichita to be there and he said it was because he was a big fan of my music, my band, and thought this would be a chance to meet me and maybe even get to sit in with me or something, which is exactly what happened. Normally I don't have people sit in or anything, but he came up and said, "Can I play a tune with you?" And I started to say, "Well I'm here with the college band..." But he said, "I know all of your songs." "Really, that's interesting." So we finally ended up doing a tune together and I heard him play with his student group, and even then—he was 17 or 18 at that point—very impressive as a young talent. I could easily see this guy was going to go somewhere.

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