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Gary Burton: Forging Ahead

R.J. DeLuke By

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"It's becoming less of an issue now that people don't even buy the whole album any more. They go in and buy two or three tracks. And they put it on 'shuffle' when they do get it. [chuckles] All that work I go through to make sure they're sequenced in a nice program order and everything sometimes goes to waste. Pat [Metheny] and I sat around talking about it when we were mixing this record. We put all this effort into getting the sound the way we think is best; the balance of the bass, the order of the songs and all that sort of thing. Then people go home and the first thing they do is change the settings. Boost the bass. Turn this down. Turn that up. Then rearrange the order. We get a chuckle out of it."

In the album notes, Metheny is very complimentary and erudite about how he enjoyed playing with Burton as a young and growing musician. As for Burton, he knew there was something about Metheny, one of today's most highly regarded guitarists, that was special.

Says Burton, "There's that expression, 'a diamond in the rough.' And even that is almost not fair to him. His talent, to me, was instantly obvious. I heard him first at a college jazz festival out in Kansas. He came up to me and asked if he could sit in. I was there by myself to play with the college band. I didn't have my band or anything. I first told him it's not possible, I'm just a guest here myself. But he was persistent. We worked out a plan to do one song together. It was 'Walter L.' I stayed around that afternoon to hear him play in the student combo that he was in. I think he would have been 18 years old around that time. I saw then he was a talented player. It was just a matter of getting more experience and smoother execution and so on. He asked me for advice. I said move to a city with a very active jazz scene. That pretty much meant New York or Boston.

"A few months later he called me and said he was coming to Boston. He didn't know anyone in New York. He arrived and immediately became pretty active playing locally. We played a lot together at my house. Within the year, I decided to add him to my band. I already had a guitarist. I didn't want to get rid of him He was one of the best players I ever had, Mick Goodrick. It worked out perfectly, because Pat was the second guitarist. We had two guitars for about a year. Pat grew as a player probably even faster, because Mick was a natural teacher and mentor for him. To me, it was obvious all along that (Metheny) was going to be a big success ... He's been amazingly able to straddle commercial success with artistic success probably better than anybody I've ever seen in the jazz field. It's a pleasure to work with him, take on these projects—side-by-side decide what to play, how to do them and how to make the record and so on. "

"I learn tons from him now," muses Burton. "He 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. He's so good knowing how to record, how to produce things. Even his concert programming and presentation experience is something I'm always learning from."

strong>Starting Out

Burton has always been learning, curious and eager as a youngster. Even as a child, he became focused on the vibraphone, somewhat unusual because many of the famous vibes players started out on other instruments before gravitating toward the melodic vibes.

"Until my generation, I don't think there are any vibes players that started on the vibes. The vibes was only invented in 1930. I came along 20 years later and started playing in 1949. Up to that point there was Hamp (Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, and Milt (Milt Jackson) and Terry Gibbs. But Milt was a guitarist first. Red was a xylophonist first, which is at least close to the vibes. Hamp was a drummer. I think me and Bobby Hutcherson were the first guys who started on the vibes and went ahead to become established players."

Burton's parents wanted their children to take music lessons. His sister was playing piano and Burton enjoyed watching her play. "They looked around and found out there was a woman in the neighborhood that played the marimba and the vibraphone. They took me there to start taking lessons, which I did. But we moved about a year later to an even smaller town in Indiana. From then on, I was on my own.

"So when people ask me how I learned, I say I'm self-taught, because from age seven on, I was. I got a start from a teacher, but as far as learning my concept of how to play the vibraphone—playing with four mallets, playing my jazz approach—that was something I put together myself."

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