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Take Five With Greg Burk


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About Greg Burk

Following his acclaimed 2016 release Clean Spring on SteepleChase Records, American pianist and composer Greg Burk returns with solo piano As A River—his 12th and most lyrical album to date.

The son of classical musicians, Burk spent his formative years on the Detroit jazz scene, followed by studies in Boston with the likes of George Russell, Danilo Pérez and Paul Bley. The lyrical, classical, side of Burk's music emerges with conviction in this solo piano setting and mixes seamlessly with his deep roots in the jazz tradition. These diverse currents flow together fluently and unpredictably to create the journey that is the music of As A River.

Now based in Italy, where this album was recorded on a Steinway Concert Grand, he's performed with some of the jazz great, from Benny Golson and Kenny Wheeler, to David Murray and Steve Swallow.

Burk describes the impetus for this recording, which at times recalls the harmonic language of folk songs and melodies, as a "reawakening to the wonder of nature." The rivers and lakes of his native Michigan were the playgrounds of his youth. This powerful union to the natural world, reawakened following a trip to Sequoia National Park to which the closing song of the recording, "Sequoia Song" is dedicated.

As A River demonstrates Burk's sophisticated touch, original pianistic conception and intimate flowing improvisations.



Teachers and/or influences?

When I was 18 I attended UMASS at Amherst. At that time both Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp were teaching there. Imagine that! Dr. Lateef had me compose within specific parameters, whereas Dr. Shepp had me learn Parker tunes, and Don Byas and Bud Powell solos. Later I attended New England Conservatory where I studied with George Russell, Danilo Perez, Charlie Banacos, Jerry Bergonzi and Paul Bley. Bley helped me tie all of the things I had learned together into a more personal whole. His lessons were like sessions with a philosopher with a bit of psychoanalysis thrown in between the stories. These great musicians all influenced my way of thinking about music, but they also influenced me by who they were as people, in particular Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp. As an 18 year old who was just getting started, they could easily have been annoyed, impatient or simply uninterested in dealing with me. Contrary to this, they were very generous with their time, their knowledge and insight and treated me with respect.

As far as influences, I'd have to say all of the music I've listened to has influenced me in some way. The jazz musicians that have had the strongest impact on me are those whose vision and personality is strong, even if it is not representative of what I want to say.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

When I was an adolescent three things happened that solidified my decision to be a jazz musician. First I didn't make my high school basketball team, but made it into the school's jazz band. Second I went to Blue Lake in Bavaria where I met bassist Rodney Whittaker. When we returned back to Michigan, I went to visit Rodney in Detroit and he took me around to the numerous sessions and rehearsals he was involved in. Thirdly my parents went through a difficult divorce at this time so music became my refuge, where I could elaborate my feelings, and discover my creativity at the same time.

Your sound and approach to music.

I'd say my approach has always been to elaborate my musical ideas in different ways, especially composing, playing on standard jazz progressions and playing free music. These different areas allow different parts of my thoughts and emotions to play out in the music. Composition is like the distillation of an idea into its most fundamental shape while soloing on forms for me is a dialogue with the tradition I love, a discipline, and the joy of swinging and playing together with others. Free playing relates to both of these—composition and form improvisation, but with the abandonment of preconceptions. Trying to elaborate a compositional idea in real time without a predetermined form is the ultimate challenge! I've found over the years that the last of these three, free playing, results in some of my most sincere and surprising music.

Your teaching approach

I have been involved with teaching for many years and my philosophy has changed over these years. As a foundation, I try to get my students to nail the basics, especially rhythm and ear training. Then I try to go with the personality of the student to help them find the road most appropriate for them. I encourage composition, transposition, free playing, and lots of listening!

Your dream band

There are so many musicians I'd love to play with that if I made a list I could probably play with different people every night for the rest of my life! Two musicians from the past that I dream of playing with are John Coltrane and Charlie Haden.

Road story: Your best or worst experience

Any experience on the road where nothing goes wrong qualifies and a best experience! One concert does come to mind however. In 2004 the Either/Orchestra traveled to Ethiopia to play at the Ethiopian Music Festival in Addis Abeba. Many great Ethiopian musicians were going to play with us, like Mulatu Astatke, Getatchew Mekuria and others. Things were running late—there was a request for an arrangement of a piece by Nerses Nalbandian, an Ethiopian composer of Armenian descent, at the last moment and our band leader, Russ Gershon, was madly writing backstage. The promoters were telling us we had to begin, the sold out crowd was also getting rowdy. Russ stood his ground and finished the arrangement. When we went on stage, the vibe in the room was so intense it's impossible to put into words. We started playing "Amlak Abet Abet," a familiar Ethiopian song and the crowd exploded into enthusiastic cheering and singing. It gives me goose bumps just to remember it. As far as bad experiences, I've been relatively fortunate—I still have all my fingers and toes!

Favorite venue

My favorite venue is the Jazz Club Ferrara in Ferrara Italy. It is in a Castle tower so the room is round and has the most incredible atmosphere. The sound is wonderful and the piano has a lot of soul to it. The public sits around the bandstand so you feel their presence closer. The manager is also a true jazz lover and has great taste in his booking.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

That's a difficult question but I'd say my most recent recording, As A River is my current favorite. I think many of the concepts I've been elaborating for years are best and most sincerely expressed here. There's also an optimism that I hear in the music, which is a bit strange considering how much I read the news! This optimism moves naturally through the recording, and I think it is the result of both personal growth and musical growth. Solo piano is a challenge not only technically but also in terms of focus, story and honesty. The piano the music was recorded on was incredible and also inspired me.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

For me, the most important thing in music is sincerity, regardless of style. This sounds easier than it is, or at least has been for me. Being engaged with the mechanics and materials of music can obscure the importance of the emotional and personal in music. I've always recorded my compositions so you might say is a part of my contribution as well. It's hard to speak of one's own work as important or not. I've always felt I had no choice but to do this so the importance for me is absolute, but for others it's hard for me to say. Perhaps ideas I've developed in my music will inspire other players to develop similar but different ideas, the way that I've been inspired by others before me. This I would consider an important contribution.

Did you know...

Since moving to Italy, I've learned to park my car in ANY imaginable situation!

The first jazz album I bought was:

It was an Oscar Peterson Trio recording, I don't remember which it was on a cassette tape!

Music you are listening to now:

Paul Bley Trio: Mr Joy (Trip Records)
Aretha Franklin: The Essential Aretha Franklin (Colombia Records)
John Coltrane: Both Directions at Once (Impulse Records)
Aaron Parks: Find the Way (ECM Records)
Rajasthan Folk Music compilation (Music Today Records)

Desert Island picks:

I always have a hard time with this question but fortunately with changes in technology I won't have to bring my record player with me to the Desert Island and I can bring my hard disc with thousands of records!

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

Musically there is so much interesting music being created it's hard to keep up. There is no shortage of creative, talented and capable musicians. The place of live music in society is not what it was in the past so Jazz has lost its contact with working people and non-concert goers to a degree. The beat goes on however and jazz is reaching more places on the globe and will certainly have an important and fascinating future.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

Exposing kids to jazz, getting young musicians to improvise, and listen to jazz recordings. Jazz is not only a style music but a model for democracy, collaboration and expression. It is an invaluable art form for these reasons and I think the UNESCO Jazz day of April 30 is an incredible initiative that will foster cross cultural collaborations and exposure of jazz around the world.

What is in the near future?

I have performances at some festivals in Italy this summer in solo piano and some with different groups including my trio. I will also release some new music soon on Tonos Records. There's a large ensemble recording I did in collaboration with Ra Kalam Bob Moses, as well as a quintet recording, a live trio recording, a studio trio recording and other surprises. Recently I have gotten active in Climate Action awareness initiatives so in the near future I will also be involved with this.

What is your greatest fear when you perform?

That the person working the sound is underqualified! There are so many difficulties in booking, touring, performing etc. When it is finally the moment to play music, and share with an audience what it is you have to offer then the sound should facilitate this, make it easier. Usually this is the case, but when it is not, for me it is the ultimate frustration.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

I'll leave that to the musicians (hopefully!) that want to play or improvise something.

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower? "The Blessing" by Ornette Coleman.

By Day:

Teacher. I've been teaching in the Conservatories in Italy for years and just began collaborating with Siena Jazz University this year as well.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

Professional dog walker! I love animals and before I discovered jazz I was planning on becoming a veterinarian. Now I think I'd be better off just walking the dogs and letting someone else do the messy work.

If I could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

Tough question! I'd say Muhammad Ali. He was an incredible person and inspiration to me.

Would you rather be a painter, dancer, writer, actor or movie director?

Writer. I began writing lyrics for some of my tunes a few years ago and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it! I've lamented the fact that the vast majority of standards talk about romantic love and nothing else. I've always felt that was so limiting.

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