Pianist Burton Greene


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BG: Yeah, of course, it already started changing in the 80s because Reaganomics went all over the world. You could really feel that the bite from big business pushing the political arm started with Reaganomics. It really got strong with that, and it came here too, with the governments swinging progressively to the right and with big business and money. I could buy this boat for $13,000 in ’86 and now I couldn’t buy a closet here either for that kind of money. Older cats like myself had a chance to get established in the meantime, before this enormous difference between the actual goods and what you have to pay for them. Young guys today are under enormous pressure; most people need to teach or have a day job, which doesn't leave them enough time to create. I thank the Lord that since I was 30 years old, I’ve just done the music. I went on weeks in the ‘60s with a handful of rice, but as long as I had my strength... and you know, if you had friends, somebody would always invite you for dinner. There’s always a way to get by; I really feel that you can get what you want in this life if you’re dedicated and serious enough, just be careful that’s not all you get (I’m referencing Satchidananda, by the way). For me, what he was saying was that you get your vision, but make sure it’s a large vision, not just some penny-ante stuff and then you’re stuck. You want a bigger goal in life, but you can’t get it because you’re wallowing in this narrow thing you’ve wished for. You should strive not just to be a great artist but a great human being; then your life takes on a greater dimension. For me, to be kind and generous and loving in your music means that the person behind the music is that way too – you have a bigger goal in your life, not just that you can play faster than everybody else.

AAJ: Hardship is an inspiring thing for creativity.

BG: As long as you have enough sustenance, but I guess dues – we need dues to appreciate shit; we get it too easy and we’re lazy. Look at the lion, he’s a big pussycat – twenty-two hours a day he sleeps. His old lady forages for him and he doesn’t have to do anything. So what about the rest of us? I guess that’s what it’s about, being the low end of the totem pole, you’re motivated. The people on top, they know they’ve got to hold onto it regardless of what happens and they’re not willing to go down or really come up the right way. The people on the bottom, it’s easy to get away from the shit, because they’ve had their noses rubbed in it. You don’t have to tell them twice to get them away from that.

AAJ: The problem is that they have to support the rest of the totem pole.

BG: Well, not if they’re clever. You have to work for yourself, not for the system. What does your soul need? I don’t have a Mercedes-Benz, so what? I haven’t had a new car since 1960, and I wrecked that, so what? I’m driving a seventeen-year old car right now, so what?

AAJ: Having stuff really encumbers you; you’re not able to pick up and move and go new places.

BG: Right, how many rich people do you know who are on top of their game as creative artists?

AAJ: And in Europe, you probably had an easier time of it being able to just ‘pick up’ and go from place to place for work.

BG: At least the first ten or fifteen years were great here; Socialism was wonderful, there were always gigs and you hardly had to pick up the phone to get them. I had seventy-five gigs in a year, and it’s all way gone. Now it’s the politics of friends, not what you know but who you know.

AAJ: How exactly did you come to choose Holland?

BG: Well, first a bunch of us were in Paris. You know, the whole wave went over at the end of the 60s; the landlords jacked up the rents in New York and there was some music happening over here. Socialism took over in France, but they were in their fathers’ swimming pools afraid to make a move. For a while it was in the air; there would be a lot of gendarmes at the concerts, we all did festivals but there was very little money as always. I got tired of fifteen-franc hotels on the Left Bank, my back was going out, and I said ‘what’s Paris but a dressed-up 18th or 19th-century scene.’ They were still talking about the great masters and the only masters there were people doing what we were. I didn’t hear any French stuff that was knocking my socks off, and it was like a nervous version of New York without the creative dynamics. My nerves were continually getting more and more frazzled, and I wanted a place to relax, so I found this garden house in Holland after I did some gigs with Willem Breuker, Han Bennink and Arjen Gorter, for $50 a month. It was a big property with a primitive garden house, and that’s where I had my “turtle-nervous-breakdown.” It came on slowly and finally I got it in that garden house; I could work it out, I had a month to sort things out before I could function.

AAJ: And you had your tree there, too...

BG: Oh yeah, the tree helped me a lot. I wrote a piece on that huge old tree [next to Burton’s garden studio, the oldest tree in that part of Holland] called ‘Chestnuts for Consort.’ It never got on a record, unfortunately.

AAJ: As far as free music being beholden to the idea of open communication between players, and a lot of your recordings being about that, how do your solo performances fit in?

BG: I just did some spontaneous playing with some guys over here, a Canadian tenor player named Rob Armus; a young guy about 25-26, the American trumpet player Adrain Longo, and Tony Wilson, a guitarist from Vancouver. I love to do it with other players because for me it’s an intimate conversation. I don’t need to converse with myself as much; I enjoy doing it with other people. With me it’s more interesting to work off of compositional frameworks or fragments at least. I rarely do a total improv from A to Z, though I did one on that record with Mark Dresser for CIMP. On the next solo record I might throw one in, just a very basic graphic idea or something. I find that for me to be free, the more chops and the more of an understanding of different types of music you have, the greater the palette and the more colors you can work with. For me, free means that at one point, my muse tells me chord changes, funk-bucket, etc., I’m going to do that. I would approach that whole thing free anyway. I might jump out of the bar lines solo, and it’s great because... the thing that’s so boring about the bebop imitators is that the giants created that music and they cleaned it out. Few people could clean it out today like they did, because that was free at the time. That’s the way Dizzy, Bird or Mingus played that shit in the ‘50s. Being free is following your muse at the moment, and if you feel like playing a Mozart cadenza, do that too. How high is up? There are so many forms you can use, but I just try to follow my muse. For me it’s like breathing in and breathing out; if I really exploded through some real free combustion playing, then I need to charge my battery again and I might take a very strict form to do that.

AAJ: You’ve explored all these different avenues for improvisation; not just freedom, but also ragas, East European music, klezmer, and it’s almost like you’re freer now than you were in the ‘60s, because you’ve extended that palette.

BG: Of course, the more you have the more you can say.

AAJ: So how do you view your early work?

BG: I hadn’t meditated yet. I’ve been a meditator for many years too, and that has let me focus and milk the cow longer. Savor the milk; take the essence and take it to another level. Work with it, nurture it and go with it. At the time I was exploding in a lot of different directions, and I’ve taken my earlier stuff as a sort of collage, and now I try to tie up the loose ends. I had fifteen different bits of information in one piece, whereas now I have three or four and take it deeper and further. I don’t need to work with so many colors in one piece; I’d choke it and then get lost. I’m more into nuance and subtlety now than I was then, I guess.

AAJ: I would agree; for example, listening to your new Drimala release, it’s worlds away from anything you did in the ‘60s. It sounds more fully-formed to me.

BG: Well, it wasn’t preconceived; it was still spontaneous, but in a compositional framework. There was an audience there, of course; I’m going to do another one in ten days at the same place. It’s going to be a CD presentation concert, but I’m going to do as much new material as I can because there’s a great engineer there and I’ve got to get him on the case again.

AAJ: Where do you see your music taking you next? Are there avenues you haven’t explored that you’d like to get involved with?


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