With virtually flawless execution and a remarkable sense of adventure, Gary Burton has changed the face of the vibraphone. Introduced in the '60s to a larger audience thanks to guitarist Hank Garland, he has returned the favour by bringing attention to a number of fine young guitarists, including Larry Coryell, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Pat Metheny. On his latest release, Generations
, he introduces Julian Lage, who was a precocious seventeen at the time of the recording. Lage is a fine composer and remarkably mature guitarist, and he helps make Generations
the best Burton record in years.
Burton has suffered, in recent years, from a self-imposed desire to make concept recordings, paying tribute to Lionel Hampton, Astor Piazzolla and Milt Jackson, to name three. While his recordings are always well executed they often seem a little too contrived, so it is refreshing to see him put together a group with no preconceptions other than that of the obvious generational difference among the musicians, and just play.
With a programme that includes material from Carla Bley, Metheny, Steve Swallow and current pianist Makoto Ozone, with whom he has been associated for twenty years now, this is Burton's strongest set list since his days with ECM. And Lage contributes three compositions which are, as is typical of Burton's choices in material, accessible yet deceptively challenging. Lage's "First Impression" has a bit of that Metheny mid-Western feel, but when Lage starts to solo he makes it all his own. For a player who, according to the liner notes, "is looking forward to getting his driver's license," Lage already has a distinctive voice that comes partly from the Jim Hall school, and partly from the Metheny school in his use of wide intervals; but his phrasing, which is more relaxed, and his subtle vibrato give him a distinctive sound.
Anchoring the rhythm section are the ubiquitous team of bassist James Genus and Clarence Penn, who can navigate everything from the Cuban-informed treatment of Swallow's "Ladies in Mercedes" to the tango-inflected "Early" and the tender Mitchel Forman ballad "Gorgeous." The group delivers a version of Bley's "Syndrome" which Burton has covered twice before; but by reworking the harmony during the head and swinging harder than ever before the group makes this the definitive version. And Lage's solo is nothing short of stunning, as is Burton's.
Burton's playing is as impeccable as ever, ranging from fiery to abstract and impressionistic, as on Ozone's "Heroes Sin Nombre." But always the consummate bandleader, he leaves plenty of room for the rest of the group. And it is the feeling that this is not a project, but a group, that makes Generations such a satisfying effort from an artist who has created a body of work redefining the expectations of his instrument.