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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.
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