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Greg Burk: Everyone Should Be Present

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I found that I had to write a song in one sitting. One or two at the most. Otherwise, it just became this weird, amorphous, tortured thing trying to find itself
Pianist Greg Burk first came to listeners' attention during his tenure with Russ Gershon's Either/Orchestra, appearing on their Afro-Cubism and Neo-Modernism albums while simultaneously releasing his own CDs Checking In and Carpe Momentum. This year has seen Burk do the almost impossible: in a jazz world crowded with superstar pianists, he's put out the best piano trio album of 2005, Nothing, Knowing, a remarkable session with electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bob Moses. On it, Burk takes his interest in free, rubato playing to a new and unique musical place that really needs to be heard to be appreciated. The formerly Boston-based Burk has relocated to Rome, where I spoke with him about the new CD, his explorations into rubato, his final recording with the Either/Orchestra Live in Addis (also released this year) and more.

All About Jazz: You've got three albums so far under your name: Checking In, which is a trio session on Soul Note, Carpe Momentum, a quartet record also on Soul Note, and your new trio album Nothing, Knowing, which is just out on the 482 Music label. For me, listening to these records chronologically is interesting because I can hear your fascination with rubato, open, improvised playing grow and develop with each album. There's excellent music on all three albums, but the openness in tempo and structure does increase with each one and it really culminates with Nothing, Knowing—which isn't to say there's no composed or structured music in it. I love this new record and can't help but feel this one is a real breakthrough for you, that you've sort of found your path. Tell me what interests you about this kind of open, rubato playing.

Greg Burk: Well, rubato playing is something I've always done in my practicing and I think it's because I come from a family of classical musicians. Especially opera—I heard a lot of opera growing up. My father's a conductor; my mother's an opera singer. And that kind of melody above all, and the way the music can shift following a drama, following the story, basically—the music is serving the story and the melody is always out front. So I think exposure to that kind of music really made an imprint on me that took a while to emerge because it took me a long time to get a handle on the basics of jazz playing and trying to adopt an identity like that takes a lot of work, but obviously the other interest in rubato playing was always there. I didn't give it much importance until I starting recording it and hearing it back [laughing]. It was a real revelation! I started doing that when I was a student at NEC [New England Conservatory] with [Paul] Bley; my last lesson with him was in the studio—I just played two hours of free music with Bley right there. Fortunately, he's a really humorous and light guy when he wants to be and it wasn't a pressure situation.

AAJ: You'd established a relationship by that point. It wasn't an audition.

GB: Right. And believe it or not, I'd only heard his trio records. I hadn't heard any of the solo records, so I didn't even know what I would be doing if I had wanted to imitate him. So I did the free playing and I connected with it instantly; it made perfect sense to me. Whereas listening back to myself playing tunes, standards—it was always like the shadow of Herbie Hancock.

AAJ: Well, he casts a long shadow.

GB: A very long shadow. Rightfully so, but it was frustrating, really. I didn't feel like I could bring all of my music into that context. And I needed a different context to access whole parts of my musical identity and heritage—whatever was there, but wasn't on a II-V-I [laughing]. [Drummer] Bob [Moses] was key in that, too, because he's really into rubato playing for that reason: it changes the way you hear what you're doing because there's, at least in my experience in rubato playing, more time to reflect on what you've done and what needs to come next. It tends to make me play with more of a dramatic curve to the improvisation. Bob was a big influence on me to pursue that, because he recognized that; he said, "well, man, that's your best stuff. Or at least that's the stuff that's most specifically you.

AAJ: Speaking of Bob—you're playing with Bob Moses on drums and Steve Swallow on electric bass on this album. After hearing it, it's hard for me to imagine this material being played by a different group. They're so ideal for this music, they're so fearless, and they're so attuned to each other and you. Moses played on your first record, but as a pair they have a huge history as a rhythm section. Did you prepare or compose this material before you knew who you were working with or did you write it with them in mind?

GB: Half and half. Some of the tunes, like "Old Souls and "Blink to Be, are tunes of mine I wrote at least ten years ago. Other tunes I wrote the week of [the session], and a large portion we just made in the studio with no preparation. I definitely had them in mind. Swallow is such a melody player, it's amazing. Even his basslines, they function as basslines and they provide that momentum, but the melodic shape and interest in them is pretty unique. And Bob is all over that; he's a melodic drummer. I wanted to create a context that was about everybody and really wasn't about me as much as it was about what we could do together. Even though I hadn't played with Steve before the recording. We had been in contact for a couple years and wanted to collaborate, but we hadn't played before. But it didn't really matter because it was easy for me to conceptualize how they were going to react to the material I brought in, and I was familiar with their music—so it fell right into place.

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