Jon Burr Band at Birdland, NYC


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After hearing so many copy-cat bands here in NYC, it was refreshing to hear an ensemble that was reaching out for the new while not letting go of the tried and true
Jon Burr
New York, New York
December 9, 2007 2 p.m.

A few of us were outside the front doors waiting for them to open and I was thinking about this concert and what it was going to be like. The intelligence and experience one needs to create music is a developing process through a musician's entire life. I have known Jon Burr for over twenty years, and the experiences he has had as a musician have contributed to his development and accomplishments as one of the truly creative forces on the New York scene. His group has grown into a new band, concept, format, presentation, with more complex arrangements and sophisticated harmonies that assure his artistry is a rare and unique addition to the music world. He has made the most of his opportunities

Burr presents his songbook with three accomplished singers (Ty Stephens, Hilary Kole and Yaala Ballin) and an outstanding rhythm section that flows from light country, to traditional blues, to fusion, interjecting great solos along with that all-important swing feel emanating from upright walking bass, while blending optimally with the other instruments and voices. Burr's songs, moreover, encompass different styles, and the singers must be versatile enough to adapt to the requirements of each stylistic change. The inspiration for much of this material stems from Burr's time with giants such as Buddy Rich, Tony Bennett, Stan Getz and Chet Baker, when he formed his approach to composition and bass playing.

At Birdland on this Sunday afternoon people were walking in and finding their seats while the musicians were still arranging their music and making last-minute preparations. Everybody was anxious to see what this concert was going to be about, for it was by invitation only. This was Burr's day—the consummation of his entire musical career, all put into this one concert, featuring, of course, his songs and documented on DVD. The singers sat to the left of the stage waiting to be called up to perform.

Then Burr gave a polite introduction for each singer and told something about when and how he wrote the songs before inviting Stephens on stage for the first vocal. What followed was a swinging happy tune delivered with a big smile yet in a bluesy manner. The second song, performed by Kole, was a soft light tune suited to her pure clear voice. Nothing too dramatic—just an appealing, gentle song.

Stephens came back up and Burr took a moment to pick up the electric bass, counted off the tempo, and established a pulse I knew he had learned from Buddy Rich. Burr played electric bass like it was a musical instrument and not a rock machine. This style of playing so influenced the drummer and guitarist that it changed the entire sound of the band from a traditional rhythm section to an all-out blowing group suggestive of a Chick Corea electric band or Miles Davis electric group. The concert continued in the same vein throughout the performance: introduction of the singer and song, with changing textures in the switch from acoustic bass to electric bass, acoustic guitar to electric guitar, and from soprano saxophone to tenor saxophone.

It seems appropriate here to pay special attention to the role of the guitar in the arrangements. Hart changed the tone from a folk guitar, to a rock guitar, to a jazz guitar, and even to an organ sound in the blues, providing the added color that in turn brought out the colorful tones of the singers and songs, leading to a uniquely compelling overall sound. My entire body was vibrating from the harmony, blend and orchestration of the band. These artists really had respect for the music, arrangements and the singers. Throughout, it was clear this was not an ego trip but a group of musicians performing with a common goal of creating the best music and accompanying the singers with the highest standards of musical performance.

Finally, Yaala Ballin came up to sing, a vocalist I had heard in a different band. She's an understated, smooth, quietly inviting artist who was a genuine pleasure to listen to, especially while blending her voice with the tenor sax and guitar, reminding this listener of Rodgers and Hammerstein's score from South Pacific. But Ballin sounded better than the original cast from South Pacific. The solos from the tenor, guitar and piano reached a high pitch of excitement, as integral and mutually complementary as cream and coffee.

So often a band's program consists entirely of standards from known composers. But Burr in one sense went beyond a Buddy Rich, Tony Bennett or Stan Getz because he was the songwriter and lyricist as well as a performer. Burr simply dared to take that extra step of creating and presenting original, unfamiliar material. Moreover, all the singers were very comfortable with the words and melodies and presented the songs in the proper context.

Burr's brilliance especially shown in his matching of singer with song, since he had three singers with three different voices and three different styles. Additionally, he called upon his lovely 14-year-old daughter to sing one of the songs for what was a winning performance. The father, I know, was very nervous about this performance, but he had every reason to be proud about the final result. Burr presented the performers so professionally with his thought-out introductions, along with assuming numerous other tasks, such as counting off the right tempo to capture the true flavor of each song. If the tempo wasn't right, Burr would composedly stop the band and start over.

It was only afterwards that a listener could savor the full experience of this event, and these are some of the lingering impressions: Ty Stephens is a swinger, who wants to have fun singing while including the audience. His rhythmic feel is very exacting, making him easy to listen to and watch.

Hilary Kole is a diva and, with her long hair and presence on stage, a striking woman. Vocally, her tone is like a bell ringing with the pitch right on, allowing her to be in exact synch with the tenor. In sum, her quality and style were highly reminiscent of a Joni Mitchell.

Yaala Ballin is the almost mystic and mysterious, subdued jazz singer with her understated style and clear voice. Unlike Kole, she was almost self-effacing on stage after she walked up, her presence not of itself arresting. Yet when she sang, her voice moved from one note to the next with the authority of a Frank Sinatra, especially the Sinatra who sang bossa nova tunes on the two albums he made with Jobim. We look forward to many great recordings from this young, unassuming giant.

As for the instrumentalists, Jon Davis is the all-around veteran pianist with great technique and empathy that fits in with what is going on. He also took some impressive solos, making him a versatile asset to any band. John Hart (guitar) was the orchestrator of the band with the many different sounds coming out of his guitar—originating from six foot pedals and two guitars. Hart also played some outstanding solos in addition to communicating well with the tenor player, Joel Frahm, during some tightly executed duets. Frahm was the featured jazz soloist in the band, perhaps in part because Burr loves the sound of the tenor sax after performing with Stan Getz for so many years. Frahm, moreover, is quickly establishing the credentials of a Getz and is a player who will subordinate his own talent to the requirements of the occasion. Anthony Pinciotti, drummer, was a solid foundation and an attentive accompanist, providing the right fills at the right volume, and covering all the styles. Burr knew what kind of percussionist he needed and obviously picked the right musician for the job.

Finally, someone had the courage to try something new within the traditions of jazz and popular music. After hearing so many copy-cat bands here in NYC, it was refreshing to hear an ensemble that was reaching out for the new while not letting go of the tried and true.

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