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Pianist Burton Greene

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BG: As long as I live, there will always be new dimensions in music. How high is up? If you’re tired of using the forms in the park, what about the forms in the jungle? How are you going to run out of those? There’s always something you can learn; on some levels I’m a total beginner and on some levels some people would call me a master because I’ve been doing it so long. But on some levels, I’m a novice. There are guys that will always kick me in the butt. For example, there’s Mark Dresser. Guys of his generation... he’s already 50, and that’s still fifteen, sixteen years younger than I am. That’s still a generation gap, and our generation was still exploding and we didn’t have time to read a lot of fly shit on the paper. But he grew up with that stuff, and guys like him and Denman Maroney, Dave Douglas, they have a natural inclination to work with a lot of complex forms, so they’re versatile with classical music and have that kind of chops and knowledge. Yet they still bust it up and improvise right in the middle of that. Gunther Schuller started that third-stream thing way back when, with Lukas Foss and those guys, but there were still classical players on one side of the fence and jazz players on the other side. Once in a while they’d combine and make some interesting stuff, but mostly they were on different sides of the fence. What is obvious with Mark and Marty Ehrlich and these guys, they just walk down the both paths very easily.

AAJ: And free music walks a line between so many different concepts, it is like the third stream.

BG: Yeah, and Mark made me work on my reading chops, which was good. I’m a better reader than I used to be, but I’ve got a ways to go. I just heard Mark with his trio and they were doing some cross-rhythm shit that was all written out, really complex stuff, and it all came out. That was a composition, none of it was improvised. Essentially they’d open it up, but the stuff they were playing on the page I couldn’t believe. There are always people who can kick your butt and teach you something new if you’re open to that.

AAJ: Well, I was talking recently with someone about this, that the ‘young lion’ players aren’t really that young, so where are the serious twenty-one year old players?

BG: Well, that’s another reason I miss New York. When I’m in New York, I go hang out at the Knitting Factory or something, down in the lounge there’s some young cats playing some of the most ridiculous shit you’ve ever heard, and you’ve never heard of any of these kids. They’re like twenty-one years old, and where the hell did they come from? The bowels of Brooklyn or something, I guess... There isn’t much young blood around here that’s kicking my ass like there is in New York. Maybe it’s just because a lot of the stuff I hear around here is too intellectual for me; it doesn’t have that ballsy, raw energy quality that I like so much.

AAJ: So the days of the prime Dutch ‘happening’ approach to the music are long gone?

BG: Well, I don’t want to generalize. Maybe there are a few people doing stuff here that I don’t hear, maybe it’s in another arena, maybe it’s happening in the IJSbreker rather than the BIMHuis (the IJSbreker does contemporary classical stuff). I can’t cover all the bases; for me, Holland is just a quiet place to live. I’m on the computer all day or working on music, and I travel from here because there are so few venues. The key is that you’ve got to find cheap travel. It’s all one-nighters, so you can’t just stay in one place. You’ve got to move. Now there are younger kids and you don’t hear what they’re doing. I’ve got this whiz-kid who upgraded my website, he’s twenty-one years old and he’s been on the computer since eight or nine. The way he does the website in a couple hours... he developed a hand-held thing to create his music, he notates through this thing in his hand, and he sells them over the internet for $200 a pop. He’s set up a corporation already. He travels all over the place, sending his shit out to people, and it’s all done through the internet. He says ‘fuck the record companies, I just sell my stuff myself through the internet.’ He’s going on a whole other ball game; nobody’s heard him in a live concert, he’s doing all his shit through the internet, electronic stuff. Funny, the theatre has changed. They’re working with noise today, and maybe they’re making something out of it besides noise.

AAJ: It’s almost something you have to hear in hindsight after it’s done to get where it’s really coming from. I sometimes wonder if I was the age I am now in the ‘60s, whether I would have even been following the channels of free jazz, especially where I’m at geographically, to have even heard that music. Now there’s the computer and you can get exposed to stuff you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. I have that to thank in part for getting exposed to the music.

BG: It’s the information highway. That’s what I’m saying, how high is up? I think that, like Leon Thomas used to say, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” I think that there’s a high energy that you can’t even imagine. You can get to higher and higher energy if you’re self-motivated. But the thing that screws up a lot of people is that they’re too much exteriorized. That’s the basic thing I want to say: the discovery I made not just intellectually but soulfully is that whatever comes and goes on the outside – this gig or that gig, this girlfriend or that girlfriend, no girlfriend, money or no money – there’s a tremendous wellspring of resources within your own interior or your own soul. If you come from the wellspring within, or you understand yourself (that’s Satchidananda again: “to understand means to stand under where you’re already standing”), you really get down into the depths of what it’s all about from within yourself and you let go and dive in, through meditation or whatever you have to do. You get such a wellspring that your life is not predicated by the win and loss situation on the outside. Once you get that wellspring, then you can connect with kindred souls to share in that wellspring. How high is up, or how high is down? The magnificent tree, people look up at it reaching for the sky, but they don’t see how it’s reaching through the earth. Without that it would never grow. When I meditate well, I’m rooted and I’m out there.

AAJ: And who says your head can’t be in the ground and feet in the clouds, too?

BG: I slipped when I got that ticket; I was dreaming and forgot how the police were just sitting there trying to make some bread – and that’s nothing new. I was thinking about something Ahmad Jamal once told me, “vigilance is the eternal price of freedom.” That comes back to me a lot when I’m not grounded and I’m floating into a wall because I forgot about vigilance. The kite can go as far and hard and free as possible, but only if someone is standing there holding it on the ground. You’ve got to remember the guy with the string. All this is coming from within, and then you’re motivated – energy creates energy. It’s the law of things in motion to stay in motion and things stopped to stay stopped. If you want to get in that creative flow, no problem – things will happen. Who cares what form they take, as long as they happen. Don’t look the gift horse in the mouth, because we all like surprises. That’s the blueprint for living right there. That’s much more important than how many times your name comes up in Down Beat or how many times your girlfriend tells you how great you are. It’s nice to get accolades from people, but it’s much better to be happy with yourself.

Recommended Listening:

The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble (Cadence, 1964)

Patty Waters Sings (ESP-Disk’, 1966)

Burton Greene Quartet (ESP-Disk’, 1966)

Presenting Burton Greene (Columbia, 1968)

Burton Greene - Aquariana (BYG Actuel, 1969)

Burton Greene & Daoud Amin - Trees (Button Nose, 1974)

Burton Greene - Throptics (CIMP, 1995)

Burton Greene - Live at Grasland (Drimala, 2004)

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