Performing Arts

Great Vibrations: An Interview with Gary Burton

Greg Burton photo (partial) Photo found here

Our jazz critic talks to Gary Burton about his reunion with Pat Metheny, about starting a "gentle" jazz-rock group, and that no one seems to know what a "vibraphone" really is.

Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow, Antonio Sanchez

Quartet Live

Label: Concord
US Release Date: 2009-05-26
UK Release Date: 2009-05-25
Artist Website

If you were looking for fresh sounding jazz in the '60s and '70s, there were plenty of "out" sounds to dig, and eventually there was the beginning of fusion music, amped up with funk and acid guitar. It was a time of change, and harsh, bracing change was at the door.

But change and progress need not always jar the ear. And in jazz, the proof of that is Gary Burton, the gentlemanly king of the vibraphone. He got his start in Nashville at a young age, then played with George Shearing in 1963 and Stan Getz from 1964-66. But real notoriety came with the first group under his leadership. The Gary Burton Quartet was tuneful, melodic, and accessible—yet it was also a bold experiment.

Jazz Meets Rock, Gently

"I was casting about for a concept for this band. What are my roots? What do I have to focus on? I grew up in the Midwest and started my career in Nahsville with country musicians in my early 20s. I was a big fan of early rock music—Elvis and the like—but in the mid'-60s rock became more sophisticated and interesting to musicians. And there I was ready to start my new jazz band."

Burton's solution was to construct a quartet that was a little bit classical -- "I modeled it after a string quartet in that I wanted equal roles for the instruments and equal interplay between them" -- but also based around the electric guitar. His first guitarist was Larry Coryell, who would go on to a blazing if unconventional career in fusion as well as more mainstream jazz. In the rhythm section, he added fiery drummer Roy Haynes and a Getz bandmate, bassist Steve Swallow. A year later, in 1968, Gary Burton was named Downbeat's "Jazzman of the Year".

What made Burton's early music suggest rock? Certainly, featuring a young guitarist was one element. But this was never heavily electric music. "It just seemed like the right thing for me to bring elements of county and rock into jazz. But I didn't go the same direction as what later became fusion music because of the nature of the vibraphone. It's a softer instrument, and that kept my music more melodic and lyrical."

Specifically, Burton focused on adapting the simpler harmonic structures of rock. "In most jazz of that era, you would never play a major triad, unadorned -- it was considered too plain. But in rock and country this was a pretty standard harmony. We had tunes that featured this kind of harmony, and to some people, this suggested country or rock."

A New Fan, A Young Bandmate

Young folks were immediately attracted to the sound of the Gary Burton Quartet. Some were inspired to pick up an instrument, like perhaps the guitar, because of Coryell and Burton. "I met Pat Metheny at a college jazz festival in Kansas. I was the guest player with the host band, and Pat was there with a small group. He walked up to me and introduced himself. My group was his favorite, he told me, and it was reason he started playing.

"Pat said, 'I know all your songs—may I sit in with you?' He played on one song, and I listened to his small group. He was quite promising. He asked me for some advice, and I said, 'Leave Kansas.'" Six months later, Metheny arrived in Boston -- where Burton had started teaching at the Berklee College of Music -- and the two became friends."Soon I hired him to be in my band."

Metheny spent three critical years in the mid-'70s with Burton's quartet, recording three classic albums for ECM with the band: Ring, Dreams So Real, and Passengers. Burton and Metheny seemed tailor-made for each other—both Midwestern kids from Indiana and Missouri respectively. "Pat grew up in Missouri and was exposed to country and rock -- and he told me that he related to my band from the start."

On all these records, Burton had another critical partner in bassist Steve Swallow, who had been with him in Getz's band. "Guitarist Jim Hall told me about Steve Swallow. I got to know him, and when Stan needed a bass player, I recommended him. When I started my own band, I convinced Steve to come with me. For 21 years, we played together. The great thing about Steve is that he was my advisor. I talked over everything with him—what tunes to play, what direction to go with the music, what musicians to hire. He was wonderful at helping to guide the group. I had a partnership with him over those years."

And So: Reunion

Before the '70s were over, Metheny had made the first few of his own group's albums on ECM, and his career in jazz would leapfrog Burton's, achieving the popularity and critical respect that almost never go together in jazz. Swallow also left the Burton group eventually, playing more and more with Carla Bley and many others.

But several years ago Metheny was the featured guest at the Montreal Jazz Festival and got the idea to play one of his concerts with Burton's then-current group. "He called me up, and we thought it would be fun to play some of the songs we used to play together. We thought it would be a one-time thing, but the concert went so well and we had so much fun that we started talking about playing some more concerts and doing a record."

That record, Quartet Live, was recorded in June of 2007 at Yoshi's, the great San Francisco jazz club, and was released this month. Now the reunited group—Burton on vibes, Metheny's guitar, Swallow on bass, and drummer Antonio Sanchez—is about to go on its third tour together. The recording is a straight shot of nostalgia if you loved those classic ECM recordings, but it sounds remarkably up to date as well. If standard jazz-rock "fusion" has aged about as well as un-refrigerated bologna, then this music is something else altogether: fresh, still fresh, probably because it was never based around gimmicks or effects but rather musical verities. The melodies are still engaging and the sound of the group is actually improved by a clear recording and a sense of mature ease. The group remains uncluttered, very much like the string quartets that Burton imagined them to resemble.

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