Gary Burton Quartet: New York, NY, September 21, 2011

Dan Bilawsky By

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Gary Burton Quartet
Blue Note
New York, NY
September, 21, 2011

Lionel Hampton carved out a place for the vibraphone in a swing setting, and Milt Jackson brought the instrument into bop, but Gary Burton remains the guru and guiding light in virtually every other aspect for vibraphonists and fans the world over. As a visionary educator, he helped to make Berklee the place to go for aspiring jazzers, and as a performer, he's redefined the very way the vibraphone is played. His four-mallet grip and stunning technique pointed the way to a more pianistic approach for vibraphonists everywhere, and his influence looms large over every aspiring vibes player who came into being in the past four or five decades. While countless other vibraphonists active today—from elder statesmen like Bobby Hutcherson, Teddy Charles and Mike Mainieri to younger trendsetters like Stefon Harris and Jason Adasiewicz—have left a lasting impact in different ways, Burton is in a class all his own.

During this visit to New York's Blue Note, where this quartet first came together nearly a year earlier, Burton brought forth a set of music that churned, swirled and glowed with clarity and energy. The first set on the opening night of a four-evening run featured nods to vibraphone forefathers, with a Cal Tjader-associated "Afro Blue" opening the set and Milt Jackson's signature "Bags' Groove" serving as the show-ending encore, but original works from the quartet's Common Ground (Mack Avenue, 2011) proved to be the main attraction. Bassist Scott Colley's "Never The Same Way" began with interlacing rhythms that seemed random at first, but quickly connected in logical fashion. Guitarist Julian Lage delivered nimble, single note lines as he moved all over the neck and, on this song and elsewhere throughout the set, he showed a strong kinship with drummer Antonio Sanchez. Sanchez continually supported him, while simultaneously egging him on with his polyrhythmic drumming spree.

Throughout his career, Burton has developed a reputation for launching the careers of guitar greats, from Pat Metheny to Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Lage is now part of that exclusive club. While the guitarist is only in his early twenties, he's musically mature beyond his years and he's forged a special musical relationship with Burton over the past decade. Lage was visibly taken with Burton's playing on the set opener and they both walked the tightrope together on their first public performance of Lage's "Etude." When musicians boast about the difficulty of a piece of music, it's often only hyperbolic chatter about something that's more likely to challenge an audience than the person playing it, but that wasn't the case here. "Etude" was the only number in the set that, literally and figuratively, caused Burton to sweat, as he delivered vertigo-inducing, single note lines that were broken up in odd fashion across his four mallets. While a small, noticeable slip up near the end caused him to briefly pause before returning to the fray, it proved inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

After that nail-biting performance, the band slowed things down with a wonderful take of Thelonious Monk's "Light Blue," but the heat returned with the Sanchez-penned "Common Ground." Burton delivered his strongest solo of the evening on this one and the icing on the cake came with Sanchez's solo, as the drummer spread his impressive single stroke patterns atop an evolving series of vamps from the band. "Bags' Groove" ended things on a more traditional note, but the quirky counter-figures that played against the melody helped to give it a more modern look.

While some musical performances are merely a series of sounds, this one was an all-out aural epiphany for those lucky enough to hear it. This is Burton's best band in years and one can only hope that they stay together for awhile to capitalize on what they already have going.

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