Gary Burton turned 70 this past year, but he always sounds fresh. Maybe it’s the instrument, the vibraphone, with its chiming bell sound, its rippling runs, the way it makes music ring and glow and sparkle. At least it always does in Burton’s hands.
Burton’s latest comes from his “New Gary Burton Quartet”, which is complicated on a few levels. First, this is the band’s second recording (the first was 2011’s Common Ground), but more importantly this must Burton’s one-millionth quartet. Gary Burton came to prominence in the 1960s as a sideman for pianist George Shearing and saxophonist Stan Getz, but he formed his first quartet as leader in 1967, implementing the first of his bands to prominently feature an electric guitarist. The concept was a hit, and Burton was Downbeat Magazine’s “Jazzman of the Year” just a year later.
Back then, Burton’s tunes and band suggest jazz-rock because he was incorporating elements of pop and country music into jazz. With the vibes so prominently featured, this music never really sounded all that “rock”-ish, but it was accessible, melodic, and—yes—fresh and sparkling.
Nearly a half-century later, the “new” quartet features a similar sound, with Julian Lage on electric guitar, Scott Colley on acoustic bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums. If anything, the new band sounds even less pop than those old bands, but that is probably just a result of Burton’s concept having been incorporated so utterly into the jazz mainstream over many decades. Guitarist Pat Metheny got his start with Burton in the 1970s, for example, and his popular sound owes plenty of debt to Burton’s pioneering work.
Julian Lage can hold his own with Metheny or just about any other mainstream picker these days, and his sound defines part of what’s “new” in this band. Lage favors a very dry, nearly acoustic sound from his guitar. The whole band, then, can sound gentle and plucked on many tunes. A song like “Remembering Tano” (composed by the leader) has a gentle descending harmonic form and a winning but minor melody that evokes Burton’s old bands, but Lage is particularly winning in how he brings a lyrical snap to his improvising.
Lage wrote three of the songs on Guided Tour, pushing the band a different way. His “Helena” has a darting and aggressive melody that starts in duet with Burton, sounding just a tad Flamenco, and then lurches into a set of stop-time lines that do have a jazz-rock quality. By the time Burton takes off into his solo, the band is cooking, having been launched by a thread of pulsing, almost funky bass-line figures. “The Lookout” has a complex, long-form melody that has considerable harmonic reach, and “Sunday’s Uncle” uses a tricky counterpoint melody that flows from set of exclamatory chords played by the band as a backbeat. So, however acoustic Lage may sound in terms of amplification, his work here tends to push the band away from its most gentle sounds.
Drummer Antonio Sanchez is also a huge plus here. He is a veteran presence who flows through the part of the jazz world that Burton helped to form as a member of Pat Metheny’s groups, a sideman with Chick Corea, not to mention a leader of his own bands, dates, and recording sessions. His “Caminos” reflects his familiarity with Latin jazz rhythms (Sanchez is originally from Mexico City), and his “Monk Fish” is a knotty melody that puts the band through its paces by asking it to shift rhythms every few bats on the head. But it swings like mad on the solo sections, letting Burton and Lage fly over “I Got Rhythm” changes like they were just jamming late at night.
The prettiest song here is an unusual ballad penned by the bassist, Scott Colley. “Legacy” is a beautiful and languid song that uses a series of repeated notes, downward lines, and quick, unexpected intervals to trace a feeling of melancholy. It allows Burton to excel as a ballad player, but it doesn’t sound anything like a typical Gary Burton song.
But those classic Burton songs are still wonderful too. “Jane Fonda Called Again” is sunshine and shadows, played in beautiful, loose unison by the guitar and vibes, and Burton arranges a Michel Legrand/Johnny Mercer song (“Once Upon a Summertime”) so that it eventually breaks into a tender sway.
Gary Burton remains one of the jazz masters at 70, not old-fashioned or standing still, but still giving listeners graceful earfuls of what his art has always offered: sumptuous lyricism that harnesses jazz invention as well as pop pleasure. Guided Tour is a fine recording if nothing bracing or different. The “new” band sounds great. But I have a feeling it’s not Burton’s last.