Gary Burton: The Art of Listening

Mike Brannon BY

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The art of listening to the music around you when you're performing in an ensemble: I try to lose myself into the motion and flow of sound in the music, I try to imagine that I am playing all the instruments, not just my own.
This article was originally published at All About Jazz in February 2001.

If you had to choose one living musician who has pioneered the current state and techniques of his instrument, championed jazz education and performed with most of the current crop of established, contemporary jazz artists (Chick, Metheny, Jarrett, Herbie) plus has 'discovered' and been instrumental in bringing up new leaders in his own bands (Metheny, Makoto Ozone, Tommy Smith, etc), that would be Gary Burton.

First heard on record at 17 on the now legendary Columbia recording with country sessionist/bop guitarist Hank Garland, "Jazz Winds from a New Direction," Burton's apparently not looked back as he's cut a path to contemporary jazz through instinctively fusing the worlds of rock and jazz. Along with others—Miles, Chick, Weather Report, Mclaughlin—who chose their own methods and routes to this new sound, Burton was an originator of what's become known as fusion. As with all these players, he continues to return to the original jazz roots that started it all and 52 albums later sounds as fresh and as inventive as ever.

All About Jazz: You were considered a prodigy growing up. As far as the 4 mallet technique goes, I understand that growing up, and not having seen other vibraphonists, you weren't aware that it wasn't being done. Are there times when you use 6?

Gary Burton: No, I only use four, six becomes too clumsy and impractical, at least from my experience. I started playing at age six, and started with four mallets at about age eight, so it was a very natural thing for me.

AAJ: How were you first attracted to your instrument. Was it through drums and percussion?

GB: Actually, I wasn't attracted to any particular instrument. I was six, after all. My parents wanted us kids to take lessons of some kind, and since my sister already played piano, they wanted something different for me. There just happened to be a marimba/vibraphone teacher in the neighborhood, so that's what I started with. And, it turned out to be a good match for my abilities and concepts as things developed. I never had much interest in percussion instruments otherwise. Never played drums.

AAJ: I know Bill Evans was a big influence on you. Who were your other first influences, on vibes or otherwise, in Jazz and they changed?

GB: I always liked the great improvisers, great players of melody, developers of themes. Sonny Rollins, Miles, Bill Evans, Cannonball, Coltrane, were favorites. Also, Jim Hall, who was an influence on my comping style, as well.

AAJ: Your first recording session was with Hank Garland and became the legendary "Jazz Winds from a New Direction"—still a must have for jazz guitarists and a place where you can hear some of the seeds of Pat's playing. What was that experience and its fallout like for you? Did it seem like the prodigal overnight success?

GB: At the time of "Jazz Winds," I don't think we realized it was destined to be a major album and would influence so many guitarists. It was a modest, though solid success at the time. Over the years, though, many guitarists, including George Benson and Russell Malone, have told me that was the record that got them inspired to play jazz guitar. The experience for me, at seventeen to be playing this music and making a record was like a dream. It all seemed to happen so quickly (two evenings in a studio), and then it was over. I was really thrilled to get an actual copy of it when it was released months later, and hold it in my hands.

AAJ: I'm sure. Where does inspiration come from and is it difficult for you to shift gears from Berklee duties, etc, and tap into it when you need new material?

GB: The inspiration comes from the tunes you play, from the other musicians you play with, and from your own imagination. I don't know exactly how it works, just that it does, and you gradually learn how to fall into the state of mind that allows you to play consistently. I don't find non-playing activities to interfere with playing or being inspired. I seem to switch gears from being "the player" to being the educator without much difficulty.

AAJ: How do you go about composing?

GB: I don't compose much, usually on a momentary inspiration. Some people can really focus themselves and compose whole albums of material at a sitting, and do this year after year. I have to wait till an idea pops up, and then run with it. So, for me, it means a new tune every few years, not a dozen new tunes every year.

AAJ: Can you discuss your experiences with meeting Metheny, his playing in your band and subsequent gigs and sessions? Did you have any idea that he had the potential he's shown?

GB: I met Pat the first time at a jazz festival in Wichita, he was playing in a student band. He asked me to listen to his group, and I was impressed with his playing. I advised him to move to a major city, New York, Boston, etc. He showed up in Boston six months later. It was pretty obvious from the beginning that he not only was going to be a major success (I didn't realize how major), and a good businessman with his career. He's a real inspiration. I'm incredibly proud of him.

AAJ: Is there anything unreleased upcoming with Pat or Towner?

GB: Nothing unreleased or planned at the moment. Pat and I seem to do something every five years or so, so we've got a few years yet before the next project. Haven't had much contact with Ralph since he moved to Italy at the beginning of the 90's. But, he's a great guy, a great player, and a good friend. Maybe sometime we'll do some more music together.

AAJ: You've worked with Scofield. Have you or will you work with other guitarists such a Frisell or Stern?

GB: I was on one recording with Frisell, an Eberhard Weber record called FLUID RUSTLE. Very interesting. Never played with Stern.

AAJ: You've been a part of what's come to be known as the ECM sound (regardless of rec. label) with your work with Chick and your own group. How would you describe that sound and what is it about it that didn't exist before and does now?

GB: Manfred introduced two things to the jazz recording field. One was better attention to sound quality which eventually inspired a lot of improvement in all jazz recording, frankly. Secondly, he mixed American and European musicians on projects and favored acoustic instruments and introspective styles when the opposite was the dominant jazz of the moment. I found Manfred a wonderful producer to work with. He had great ideas ("How about you and Chick playing duo? You should do something with Ralph Towner..."). And, he was an excellent sounding board for me when I was in the middle of a session. Some people found him distracting, but the choice of producer is always a very personal decision. I made some great records during my sixteen years on the label.

AAJ: What do you expect of those you choose to use as sidemen and how was that compared to what was expected of you as a sideman?

GB: expect a sideman to be well prepared on their instrument, with their musical craft, with their personal behavior, and to be comfortable with the personal dynamic of the band they are joining. On the other hand, if they play just incredibly, I would pass on some of the above requirements, though probably not all. I don't know what was expected of me as a sideman, but I think I probably made a good impression. I worked very hard at doing my part to make things work. And, I always tried to understand the vision of the leader.

AAJ: Considering your vast abilities as a musician and improviser, you choose to teach a music business class at Berklee. Why did you feel this was so important at the time?

GB: It wasn't really my idea. So many students kept coming to me with questions about business things, that it finally occurred to me that this needed to be available as a course, so I started doing it. I enjoyed it because I felt good about providing the students with the kind of information that would help them manage their careers. This wasn't always easy to learn about in earlier days in the business, and you generally learned by being taken advantage of more than once or twice.

AAJ: I was fortunate enough to see you and Chick when you did the duo gigs about 2 years ago (this was San Antonio at the Empire) and the interplay was great. Was that apparent the first time you two played together and do you find that to be the case with many others?

GB: The first experience Chick and I had playing together was when he joined my band for about six months in 1968-69. We never seemed to be able to jell. Seems funny now. So, we ended the experiment when there was a break in the schedule, and soon after he joined Miles's band and I hired another guitarist. A few years later, we played one duet tune at a jazz festival as an encore, and Manfred Eicher insisted we should do a whole record as a duo. WE thought it was insane, but finally agreed. In the studio in Norway, we found we could play with almost amazing rapport as a duo. I don't know why it was easier then, whether it was the instrumentation or just changes in our playing in the interim years. Anyway, from that time on, whenever we have played, it's been incredibly easy to interact and anticipate what each of us is going to play. I've had good rapport with a variety of musicians over the years, but with Chick, it has been pretty exceptional.

AAJ: That's pretty incredible. When and how did you start to think of the Vibes as a lead instrument?

GB: From the beginning. Almost all vibraphonists make it as leaders because few bands normally have a vibes chair in the group. And, all my heros were leaders, Milt, Hamp, Red, Cal, etc.

AAJ: You make use of guitar so much. What is it about the instrument that you like... is it the comfortable blend with the timbre of the vibes?

GB: You're right. It's the sound and the blend of the two instruments that seems to work so well.

AAJ: What is the current state of Jazz education from your perspective?

GB: It's a mixed bag. The good thing is that there is a lot of it. When I was looking for a college as a high school student in the 50's, there was only Berklee or North Texas. And, no high school jazz to speak of. Now, it's practically everywhere, even if some of it isn't that great. I'm not in favor of teaching jazz as a classical music. We need to be teaching people how to be creative and individuals, and to see them as potentially the next generation of jazz leaders, not as musicians intended to recreate the past.

AAJ: What about the viability of jazz as a profession for those getting involved now or in the near future?

GB: The jazz profession is fine, frankly. This is always a glass half empty or full issue. Ask any jazz musician how things are and they'll respond based on their own gigging. If they're working steadily and their band is hot, they'll say things are happening, man. If they're scuffling, then they'll say the scene is dying, man. This has been the case from about 1960 on. When jazz ceased to be a dance music, it left the popular realm (to be replaced by other dance music), and entered the listening realm.....smaller, more serious audiences.

AAJ: What are your philosophies on: Being a musician.

GB: It's a great life if you play well enough.

AAJ: Improvisation.

GB: The most personal of musical expressions other than composing. And, it isn't spontaneous composing any more than talking is literature.

AAJ: Spirituality as related to music and life as a musician GB: I've never had any interest in spiritual pursuits. I've never bought into the idea of a behind the scenes force manipulating what happens in people's lives. I understand having a quiet moment to relax and clear the head, I don't feel the need to give it a name, include a deity, or fire up incense or chant.

AAJ: Listening.

GB: I rarely listen to records. Never during the four months or so process of planning, recording, mixing of record projects. Otherwise, occasionally, and always something far removed from my own music. Old jazz, classical, tango.

The art of listening to the music around you when you're performing in an ensemble: I try to lose myself into the motion and flow of sound in the music, I try to imagine that I am playing all the instruments, not just my own. I want to become the whole performance of the music. At first, young musicians focus almost exclusively on their own playing and barely notice other players. Over time, they should be able to give almost equal attention to the other sounds in the ensemble so they can react and blend with the other players on an instinctive level rather than a conscious level. This ability varies widely among even professional players. Some are very good at hearing the interplay of the whole ensemble, others remain mostly focused on their own playing.

AAJ: Very true; good points. What about touring?

GB: Used to love it, not so much now. I suppose that's normal. It's the only way to stay in front of your audience since jazz folks are pretty much spread all over the world.

AAJ: Teaching and its value and necessity.

GB: I'm a big believer in teaching. Learning by trial and error works, but it's slow and tedious. Having a knowledgeable guide through the maze of experiences not only speeds up the process but enhances it, too. Someone once told me as a kid to beware of learning to read music. It would take away my natural musical instincts. Can you imagine how dumb that would have been? How many wonderful kinds of music I would have been denied if I hadn't learned to read. People tend to assume way too much mystery about music and musicians. Unfortunately, musicians tend to encourage this. After all, it helps us promote our work.

AAJ: Some do, anyway. What is your current relationship to standards? Do you have particular favorites and favorite (definitive) versions of them by others?

GB: I like playing standards, though I don't play them all that much more than originals. I grew up learning to play through playing standards, but went through a long period when audiences weren't interested in standards, so I learned to like original music a lot.

AAJ: Are there any plans to work with Herbie or Keith?

GB: None at the present time. I played with Herbie on a recording in 1964, with Getz, on a Bob Brookmeyer record. Very nice experience. Played with Keith, of course, in 1970, for several months of touring and a record project which still sounds pretty good to me. But, no plans to do anything further with either of them.

AAJ: Is there anyone in particular that you'd like to work with that you haven't?

GB: Only one artist I really missed out on. I would have loved to do a project with Sarah Vaughn, but it never happened. Otherwise, I can't say there's anyone on my dance card that I'm still waiting for.

AAJ: Can you discuss your current projects... Like Minds (with Pat and Chick), Libertango, etc?

GB: Like Minds, was an all-star project first suggested by Pat who wanted a chance to do a project with Chick. One of the most satisfying records I've made. Everyone was terrific and the rapport was wonderful. Almost every tune was a first take. Libertango is my third tango record featuring Astor Piazzolla's wonderful compositions. My love of tango goes back about 35 years, and my playing experience with it began in 1985 when I toured for half a year with Piazzolla and recorded the first project. I love tango, and greatly enjoy the change from playing jazz. There's not much improvising for me in tango, it's very passionate ensemble playing, and while I probably wouldn't want to be exclusively a tango player, I love it when I get the chance to spend some time with it.

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