We love jazz for its darting melodies, its driving rhythms, and its exciting use of improvisation in a harmonically daring framework. We love a jazz group that is tight as a Johnnie Cochrane glove, a group that can pivot like Shaq in the paint but with the sweet skills to hit from a distance.
Well, Gary Burton’s new, young quintet can do all these things, so why I am yawning?
Burton has assembled yet another remarkable young group, a batch of whippersnappers who can play their asses off and who each have personality as well as technique. Each player is a stunner in his own way, yet the group itself sounds almost anonymous—polished to within an inch of its collective life. It’s hard to fault a collection this brilliantly executed and carefully programmed. The tunes move between hot rippers (“My Romance” and “Get Up and Go”), blues grooves (“‘Ques Sez”), throwback swing tunes (“Walkin’ in Music”), and classical adaptation (Barber’s Piano Sonata arranged as “Fuga”), and the solos have character.
Yet the overall group sound is, by now, tedious. Really, it’s Burton’s fault, as he has simply mined this vein too often, creating yet another group with the primary-color sheen of his classic groups from 30 years ago. Burton, who transformed himself from a jazz pioneer into an important jazz educator by leading the program at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, now falls victim to the Berklee syndrome itself—the kind of anonymity found in virtuosity. Still, Burton remains a nearly one-of-a-kind jazz genius.
The vibraphone is an ideal jazz instrument—bright and dancing, combining rhythm and melody in a percussive sound. Yet the instrument has produced remarkably few acknowledged masters. Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson are the instruments’ towering figures. The next most important player is, without much question, Gary Burton. He pioneered the four-mallet technique and developed a band sound in the ‘60s and ‘70s that was unique: he borrowed the front line concept from George Shearing of the vibes paired with bell-toned guitar (and sometimes piano), but he married it to a busy folk-rock feel that used snappy melodies and a lively rhythm section. And—Burton had a knack for hiring rock-influenced up-and-comers on guitar—namely Larry Coryell and Pat Metheny.
And, alas, Burton has been dining out on that sound ever since. The group on Next Generation is precisely in this mold. Built around the guitarist, of course. Julian Lage is a 17-year-old wunderkind who plays like Jim Hall with a dash of Chet Atkins. His solos sparkle, and the two tunes he contributes are fun and arresting. If he were 30 he’d be good. The pianist, Vadim Neselovskyi, comes from the Ukraine via Germany, and he has a precise touch as soloist and composer’s ear for arrangement, represented in the Barber adaptation, a reharmonization of “My Romance” and his own suite-like compositions. Luques Curtis and James Williams are in the engine room on bass and drums, keeping everything popping, bouncy and alert. The dilemma, perhaps, is that—other than Lage, who’s not out of high school yet, the band is all-Berklee: Real Book fluent wizards who can play anything and, as a result, are all too happy to conform to the Burton group-sound that seems predictable at this stage of the game. They’re really, really, really good—but are they better than the original Burton band mates and recent band mate all-stars—Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Jon Scofield, Dave Holland, Steve Swallow, and Roy Haynes—to whom they must inevitably be compared in this narrow setting?
The cat who makes the biggest impression on me throughout is the young bassist, who plays with a fat, highly vocalized sound in many places. Perhaps he fares best because he sounds the least like his famous predecessors (Swallow and Eberhard Webber). His tune, “‘Ques Sez” is the most significant departure from the usual Burton group sound as well—a reasonably down-home blues. He and Williams are pocket-tight together.
Honestly, this disc promises hours of pleasant and even exciting listening. If you’re new to the music of Gary Burton, it’s a great place to start, and it does seem exciting to catch on early—as Burton has—to the prodigous talent of a young guitarist on the rise in Lage. The warm precision of this band will please old-school hard boppers as well as smooth jazz fans who like their music easy to absorb. But, in 2005, it’s about as “been there, done that” as the phrase “been there, done that” itself.
Still, the spin is a good time for all.
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