Gary Burton: Forging Ahead
And what a career. If it ended tomorrow, Burton stands tall among the assemblage of superb jazz musicians. But he's still going strong, and is now touring with one of his more popular bands, reuniting with guitar wizard Metheny and the extraordinary electric bassist Steve Swallow.
"Steve and I played for 21 years, starting in the mid-'60s," says Burton. "We had played a couple times more on record dates. But we hadn't played on a stage. 1988 was the last record I made with Steve and the last time he was in the band. Pat and I did have a history of getting together every now and then to have another reunion. We did a record called Reunion (GRP, 1990), then we did another called Like Minds (Concord, 1998). So we had a history of playing occasionally together, but not in my old group setting.
Burton says the reunion started out as a single concert "for the fun of it" at the Montreal Jazz Festival, with no intention of continuing. But, "The minute we finished we wanted to figure out how soon we could go on tour with this. It keeps leading to more gigs. We're having a blast playing the music and playing with each other."
He notes, "I've never been much for reviving the old stuff. I've always tended to want to move on to something new and what's coming next. Maybe because I'm getting older, I've done it twice now in the last few years. A reunion project with Chick Corea was my last record [The New Crystal Silence], and now this thing with Pat and Steve. But I think that's it. I don't think I'll be doing any more retrospectives.
"This particular one, one of the reasons it succeeds for us when we go play concert after concert is because it's not like we're just playing the old tunes again. They've taken on a new life for us. They feel fresh and reconceived. We haven't drastically rearranged them, but somehow they feel different. Partly because it's been decades since we were playing. We've all grown some and evolved some in the meantime. But we're definitely having a great time."
In forming the group, there was discussion over who would play the drums. "I had several different drummers over those years. Roy Haynes was the first drummer in my group and also was back with me for four or five years midway during my group's history. I had a few other drummers as well. Bob Moses for a while. Roy wasn't available. Thinking it over, more and more we got interested in the idea not being tied to somebody that used to play in the band, but choosing somebody who we thought would be most ideal. Antonio Sanchez stood out as a likely choice. Pat was already working with him and I knew him quite well. I met him when he was at Berklee College of Music while I was there. I was very familiar with his playing."
Sanchez is a strong addition, one of the very talented group of young traps masters.
"The idea was to recapture the era of my quartet. I had a band, non-stop, for 27 years. It was mostly a quartet and mostly with the guitar as the main instrument with the vibes. It started in '67 and Pat Metheny came along in the early '70s; '72 to '76, something like that," says Burton.
"It was [Metheny's] idea to play the music we used to play. There were certain composers who were regular contributors in that era. Chick Corea wrote a lot of music for the band. So did Keith Jarrett, so did Carla Bley, so did Steve Swallow. So did Pat when he was in the band. A few other people as well. I was trying to include some of the more noteworthy composers. At that point in time, people like Keith and Chick were just getting their own careers started. They were new up-and-coming musicians and I was quite pleased they made an effort to send me tunes for the group. We played a lot of their music during that first decade or so of my band."
The disk is 11 compositions, all done live, and contains some 80 minutes of music, longer than most CDs. Metheny, Swallow, Bley, Jarrett and Corea are among the composers whose work is covered. There's even an obscure Duke Ellington tune, "Fleurette Africaine (Little African Flower)."
The music follows fairly faithfully what people will hear at a nightclub or festival this year when the band is out on tour. "The only thing missing is about five more songs. We debated whether to make it a double album, but there wasn't quite enough music to stretch it that far. In fact, there's one more track that will be part of the download release that we tried to squeeze (on the CD format), but couldn't. When people buy it online they can get this one extra tune. As it is, it runs almost a full 80 minutes. We even had to sign a waiver from the CD manufacturing company in case there were complaints about the disc not playing on some older CD players. Pat said he's had that happen before a couple of times and there was never any problem. So we went a head with it, because we liked the order of it and we didn't want to cut out another song."
The band is strong. Burton is dreamy and ethereal on slower tempos and hot as hell when needed. Metheny, of course, eats up the music, showing his ever-fertile imagination. Swallow is driven, as always, and Sanchez adds the right fire and textures all throughout.
In the past, "I wrote some for my group, but I'm not a major composer, in terms of quantity output, in that I don't get that much enjoyment out of writing," says Burton. "I've always felt my pieces really don't compare strongly to those of my favorite composers among my friends. So when I say, 'Should I play my tune or should I play theirs,' I end up playing theirs. A lot of the songs that I wrote during the years I had a band often were to fill out the project. We'd get to the end of a project and we'd need one more ballad, or one more blues tune or something. I'd go home at night and make something up and we'd put it on the record. But it rarely was one of the standout tunes.
"The inclusion of 'Walter L' [Burton's only composition on the recording] was because it's a big favorite of Pat's. That was Pat's favorite record of mine when he was in high school learning to play. It was dedicated to Hank Garland, the guitarist that I started my career with when I was 17. His real name is Walter L. Garland. I named the song in his honor. It's just a blues head. That was Pat's first request when we started to do this. So we included it for that reason."
The CD has various musical flavors from mellow to scintillating. Bluesy to intricate. "I always strive for a range with my band," Burton says. "I like bringing in different stylistic influences. My band was the first to start mixing the genres. That is now pretty common. But I was bringing in tunes that were rock-and-roll influenced, country influenced, even classical influenced, into our jazz band. I was hot on that idea. I was 24 or 25 when I started my band and that was my concept.
"I got the idea partly from Stan Getz, when I played with him previously. I noticed he had found this great combination of Brazilian music and jazz. I said: 'OK, You can blend other kinds of music into a jazz situation and have something come out nice.' I came up surrounded by country musicians. I got my start in Nashville. I was very influenced at that age by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who were brand new on the scene at that time in the mid-'60s. I was drawn to bringing that kind of music into my group's repertoire. That's why [the new CD] bounces around a lot from one piece to the next."