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Gary Burton: Forging Ahead

R.J. DeLuke By

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Pat Metheny 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.
"I got started in Nashville and knew a lot of the country musicians. I got my first record contract from Chet Atkins who saw me playing in a local club in Nashville and who decided to talk to RCA and get them to offer me a long-term contract," says this renowned musician born in a small Indiana town, less than 300 miles from the country music capital of the world.

The musician speaking isn't Crystal Gayle, the popular country singer who was raised in an Indiana small town, nor is it John Mellencamp, one of Indiana's favored songs who sang famously about "being born in a small town."

The musician, speaking earlier this year from his Massachusetts home, is Gary Burton, one of the giant names in jazz music and education for decades and winner this past February of his sixth Grammy award for his album of duets with Chick Corea, The New Crystal Silence (Concord, 2008).

Burton, now 66, has led outstanding bands, played with a myriad of jazz greats, and churned out acclaimed albums over a career that started in the late 1950s when he was in his mid-teens. He's also been a major figure in jazz education, teaching at Berklee College of Music, eventually becoming its deal of curriculum and later advancing to become its chief operating officer, in the process touching the lives of hundreds of aspiring musicians. He has discovered some major talent and nurtured young musicians who have gone on to major success.

Burton, himself, started out on his instrument—the vibraphone—with very little help. He is essentially self-taught. But he went on to get an education in music—an academic pursuit that could just as easily led him into medicine or chemical engineering—and then forged a celebrated and successful career. He's still forging ahead.

That album done in Nashville, Tennessee Firebird (1966), began an eight-year association with RCA Records. His discography has been steady even since, and he's added to it this year with the superb Quartet Live, recorded during two days at Yoshi's nightclub in Oakland. It examines music from Burton's past, performed with other monster musicians: Pat Metheny on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums.

"I feel like I've come full circle," says Burton, who has stepped away from his distinguished career at Berklee. "I spent the first decade of my professional career, between age 20 and 30, just as a bandleader and performer. Now I'm back just performing. It feels good. I like having the time off between projects to sit around and muse and take stock of things. Relax and not feel like I constantly have all these responsibilities. I feel like it's been good."

Nashville?

A good ride it has been for Burton, who was trying to take in jazz as a youngster, listening to albums but getting more influence from pianist Bill Evans than from any vibes player. As he got older, he would travel to a bigger city, Evansville, Indiana, to play gigs. Boots Randolph, well-known in popular and county music, who had the hit record "Yakety Sax," lived near Evansville and gigged there at times.

"He would go down to Nashville once a month, or so, and do record dates, backing up Elvis Presley and different country records where they wanted some saxophone in the background, and making his own records as well," recalls Burton. "He happened to mention me to one of the Nashville musicians, Hank Garland. Hank decided he wanted to make a jazz record and his record company had given him the green light. He was looking around for musicians to play with and was disappointed there were no vibraphone players around because he liked the sound of guitar and vibes together.

"Boots said, 'There's a kid in Indiana. You might want to hear him.' A few weeks later, we piled the vibes into Boots' car, and old Cadillac, and drove down about three hours in the car to Nashville. I set up the instrument before some country record date was supposed to happen. Some of the musicians had come in early to do this and we jammed a couple of tunes. Hank seemed to like it and asked what my plans were. I said I was going to finish high school in another month, and then I was going to Boston [Berklee] to go to school in the fall. He proposed that I come down to Nashville for the summer and we would work at a local club on weekends and we'd make this record he wanted to make [Jazz Winds from a New Direction (Columbia, 1961)]. I was thrilled. I said absolutely. I packed up, drove to Nashville in my Volkswagen, found an apartment for the summer. We started working weekends and that led to a lot of things."

He first met George Wein that summer, and eventually played his Newport Jazz Festival. "George became one of my big supporters and mentors during the early years of my career," adds Burton. I met Joe Morello, Dave Brubeck's drummer, because Hank [Garland] brought him in to be on this record. So when I first got to the east coast, I already knew at least one established player. Through Joe I met a lot of other guys like Phil Woods.

"An awful lot happened during that summer in Nashville. I look back on it now and I think what a bizarre thing to start your jazz career in Nashville, of all places. But it was a great piece of fortune for me. Due to meeting all those people and getting that experience, when I arrived on the east coast at age 17, starting school, it was a much different picture than it might have been. I already had a record contract. I knew people in the business. My career was already underway."

The New Recording

And what a career. If it ended tomorrow, Burton stands tall among the assemblage of superb jazz musicians. But he's still going strong, and is now touring with one of his more popular bands, reuniting with guitar wizard Metheny and the extraordinary electric bassist Steve Swallow.

"Steve and I played for 21 years, starting in the mid-'60s," says Burton. "We had played a couple times more on record dates. But we hadn't played on a stage. 1988 was the last record I made with Steve and the last time he was in the band. Pat and I did have a history of getting together every now and then to have another reunion. We did a record called Reunion (GRP, 1990), then we did another called Like Minds (Concord, 1998). So we had a history of playing occasionally together, but not in my old group setting.

Burton says the reunion started out as a single concert "for the fun of it" at the Montreal Jazz Festival, with no intention of continuing. But, "The minute we finished we wanted to figure out how soon we could go on tour with this. It keeps leading to more gigs. We're having a blast playing the music and playing with each other."

He notes, "I've never been much for reviving the old stuff. I've always tended to want to move on to something new and what's coming next. Maybe because I'm getting older, I've done it twice now in the last few years. A reunion project with Chick Corea was my last record [The New Crystal Silence], and now this thing with Pat and Steve. But I think that's it. I don't think I'll be doing any more retrospectives.

"This particular one, one of the reasons it succeeds for us when we go play concert after concert is because it's not like we're just playing the old tunes again. They've taken on a new life for us. They feel fresh and reconceived. We haven't drastically rearranged them, but somehow they feel different. Partly because it's been decades since we were playing. We've all grown some and evolved some in the meantime. But we're definitely having a great time."

In forming the group, there was discussion over who would play the drums. "I had several different drummers over those years. Roy Haynes was the first drummer in my group and also was back with me for four or five years midway during my group's history. I had a few other drummers as well. Bob Moses for a while. Roy wasn't available. Thinking it over, more and more we got interested in the idea not being tied to somebody that used to play in the band, but choosing somebody who we thought would be most ideal. Antonio Sanchez stood out as a likely choice. Pat was already working with him and I knew him quite well. I met him when he was at Berklee College of Music while I was there. I was very familiar with his playing."

Sanchez is a strong addition, one of the very talented group of young traps masters.

"The idea was to recapture the era of my quartet. I had a band, non-stop, for 27 years. It was mostly a quartet and mostly with the guitar as the main instrument with the vibes. It started in '67 and Pat Metheny came along in the early '70s; '72 to '76, something like that," says Burton.

"It was [Metheny's] idea to play the music we used to play. There were certain composers who were regular contributors in that era. Chick Corea wrote a lot of music for the band. So did Keith Jarrett, so did Carla Bley, so did Steve Swallow. So did Pat when he was in the band. A few other people as well. I was trying to include some of the more noteworthy composers. At that point in time, people like Keith and Chick were just getting their own careers started. They were new up-and-coming musicians and I was quite pleased they made an effort to send me tunes for the group. We played a lot of their music during that first decade or so of my band."

The disk is 11 compositions, all done live, and contains some 80 minutes of music, longer than most CDs. Metheny, Swallow, Bley, Jarrett and Corea are among the composers whose work is covered. There's even an obscure Duke Ellington tune, "Fleurette Africaine (Little African Flower)."

The music follows fairly faithfully what people will hear at a nightclub or festival this year when the band is out on tour. "The only thing missing is about five more songs. We debated whether to make it a double album, but there wasn't quite enough music to stretch it that far. In fact, there's one more track that will be part of the download release that we tried to squeeze (on the CD format), but couldn't. When people buy it online they can get this one extra tune. As it is, it runs almost a full 80 minutes. We even had to sign a waiver from the CD manufacturing company in case there were complaints about the disc not playing on some older CD players. Pat said he's had that happen before a couple of times and there was never any problem. So we went a head with it, because we liked the order of it and we didn't want to cut out another song."
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