Great Vibrations

An Interview with Gary Burton

by Will Layman

10 June 2009

Greg Burton photo (partial) Photo found here 

Quartet Live & Movin' on

Swallow photo (partial) from

Swallow photo (partial) from

Quartet Live
The new record features songs by the same mix of composers the group favored during its first run: Swallow, Chick Corea, Carla Bley, and Burton and Metheny themselves. The classic Swallow tune, “Falling Grace”, is taken quickly but with the same beautiful cascades of harmonies. The band now swings this feeling more easily and a bit harder than before, with Sanchez skipping them forward joyously. The ballads, such as Keith Jarrett’s “Coral”, have a deeper melancholy as well.

The three Metheny tunes return as some of the strongest writing of his career. “B and G (Midwestern Night’s Dream)” has a cinematic scope and the surprise of the new, with harmonies that would never have appears in a bebop song. On the other hand, “Question and Answer” seems even more classic now—as if someone should write lyrics for it. The soloists, like the jazz players they are, all seem wiser and freer with some age. Metheny still has a joyous ease in his phrasing, and his classic sound remains his signature. (“That sound came together during the first year or so that he was in my band. He was experimenting with different amps, different guitars, and different settings.  He definitely heard something that he wanted for his sound, and around the end of the first year in the band, he had found it.”) 

Today, the improvisations sound more carefully constructed, as if a very logical and fearless architect was building them to stand for a long time but never bore you. Burton’s sound remains unfussy but beautiful—a kind of decorous version of Bill Evans, but on an instrument that peals with a smile on its face. That said, Burton seems to be playing more blues than ever before in his life, giving more guts to just about every phrase.  Swallow, quite simply, gets more and more nimble with age. His signature fretless electric bass has not lost a step, still glittering in the sun, like a river on the move in the pure air.  The interloper here is drummer Antonio Sanchez, who has been playing with Metheny for years. He adds immeasurable grace and propulsion to the group.

What Quartet Live lacks in freshness—it is, after all, defined as a retread of music from 30 years ago—it makes up for by reminding us that what started as a novel idea has become immune to fashion.  Gary Burton’s lopingly melodic jazz/rock/country sounds, today, simply like great jazz. You listen to Metheny’s “Missouri Uncompromised” and you might hear those simple harmonies or the twin-leaders’ fly-over boyhoods, but more likely you hear Sanchez’s driving swing, Swallow’s restlessly melodic bass line, and two first-class improvisers who arc across the tune with great imagination.

Pat Metheny photo (partial) found here

Pat Metheny photo (partial) found here

No Gray Eminence
Though Gary Burton is now in his mid-60s, it is hard to hear his music or see his career as having settled into a period of eminence. Speaking to him is a polite but puckish experience. He seems, if anything, restless for his age, interested in going everywhere and playing everything.

“Some musicians have one thing that they do, and they do it really well, and they make a career out of it. Like Milt Jackson—one of my heroes—played basically blues and ballads. Other musicians in the jazz field are what I call ‘world travelers’ who have curiosity about lots of things. They try something with a symphony, or something with Indian musicians. Miles Davis was great at this. He tried orchestral music with Gil Evans. He tried some electric music. I find, if you can imagine yourself playing along with it, then you can probably do it.”

That’s why Burton has trail-blazed, playing with his groups, working in myriad duet encounters, playing tango music with Astor Piazzolla, you name it. “I like to think that I’m enough of a musician than I can adapt to other players’ genres and find a common ground. Some of the most interesting music I’ve played over the years has been in these collaborative situations with some else’s music that I don’t know that well.”

And so Burton is back out at it again, now five years into retirement from his career as a professor and administrator at Berklee. He’s back out on the road duetting with Chick Corea, touring with Metheny and their quartet, working with an all-star band through Europe. “Right now I have the freedom of not having a regular band to support. So life couldn’t be much better.”

Vibes, Terrific
All of this from playing a crazy instrument that hardly anybody even understands or can identify. “I do think occasionally about how unusual it is to make a living playing jazz on the vibraphone. There have been successful vibes players through the years, but relatively few. It’s an instrument that is only visible in jazz (and Hawaiian music, but we don’t talk about that). Most people I meet don’t even know what the vibraphone is.”

Burton defies most categories and definitions, in fact.  He is one of a relatively small number of openly gay jazz musicians, a subject he has been happy to talk about for many years. But if Burton’s sexuality is as novel as his instrument in jazz, he seems also to be the most “normal” and centered of all jazz musicians. Talking about jazz and about his instrument’s role in the music still makes him seem boyish and excited.

“The vibraphone is a newish instrument. When I started playing in 1949, people were still learning how to play it and no one had started their career on the vibes.” For a while, Burton recalls, people didn’t even know what to call the set of bars and resonator tubes—the “vibraphone” or the “vibraharp”. But what does it matter if the music is this glorious?

“Lionel Hampton made the first record using vibes with Louis Armstrong. Louis hired a band in Los Angeles with Lionel on drums, and he noticed Hamp occasionally would reach over and pound away at these bell-like things. He asked Hamp to bring them along and in 1931 they recorded a Eubie Blake tune, ‘Memories of You’.”

About 80 years on, here is Gary Burton, still pounding away at these bell-like things, making it all come alive every night.

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