Gary Burton - Mallets aforethought

Forty-five years playing jazz at the highest level has taught Gary Burton that there are two kinds of jazz musician. There are those who are content to play in their chosen style of the music with the same instrumentation for the duration of their careers – and there are the Marco Polos who explore all kinds of situations, directions and line-ups.

Burton, who joins the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra this weekend to celebrate the music of saxophonist Wayne Shorter, falls squarely in the Marco Polo category. Having established himself in the 1960s, touring with pianist George Shearing’s group and as the vibraphone star in saxophonist Stan Getz’s quartet, Burton has gone on to pioneer jazz-rock, form an enduring chamber jazz duo with pianist Chick Corea, explore the new tango of Astor Piazzolla and the orchestral compositions of Spanish pianist-composer Polo Orti, and work with the brilliant French accordionist Richard Galliano, to name but a few of his adventures.
Sometimes, following his explorer’s instinct has led to nervous meetings. As the then twentysomething leader of a quartet that had responded to the arrival of the Beatles in particular and rock music in general, while adding a certain country music flavour, Burton was well aware that he was not flavour of the month with critics or the jazz establishment, and looked up at the end of a gig in the Village Vanguard in New York to see a well-known figure heading his way.
“I moved through the crowd to avoid him but he kept coming towards me and I thought, Oh no, I’m going to get a severe talking to,” he says. “But actually, what he said was, that’s really interesting new music you’re making there.”
Thus the Gary Burton Quartet, who blazed the jazz-rock trail for a year or two alone before Miles Davis’ late 1960s experiments spawned Bitches Brew and a whole popular explosion, had the approval of none other than saxophone god John Coltrane. Duke Ellington, adds Burton, was another major figure who was very encouraging towards the quartet, and rubber stamps don’t come more authoritative than that.
Growing up in small town Indiana, it was perhaps inevitable that Burton would become a musical adventurer. For a start, his chosen instrument, vibes, wasn’t exactly in the ‘every home should have one’ class. He’d begun playing at the age of five or six after watching a local teacher and her pupils give a demonstration of the marimba, the wooden-keyed cousin to the vibraphone, and despite going to jazz festivals in bigger towns nearby and seeing Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, he never saw another vibes player until he went to Berklee College of Music in Boston at the age of seventeen. Hacking out chord sequences on the piano, which his older sister played, he’d record a backing track to play along to and developed his famous four-mallet approach pretty much in isolation.
His goal had been to go to Berklee and study for three or four years, after which he’d move to New York and try to make a record at some point. But by the time he actually reached Berklee, he had a record deal with RCA through the legendary Chet Atkins, who’d heard Burton playing in Nashville during his pre-college summer holidays with country guitarist Hank Garland and had become a fan.
Playing with Stan Getz, who’d already begun successfully blending Brazilian music with jazz, suggested to Burton that it was possible to bring elements of rock, pop, country music and jazz together and as well as introducing talents including guitarist Larry Coryell and bassist Steve Swallow to a wider audience, the Gary Burton Quartet became something of a beacon for young musicians who were inspired to take up playing by rock music but wanted the freedom that jazz offered.
Burton developed a reputation as a talent spotter, although he puts many of his discoveries down to the fact that he’d returned to Berklee, at first as a tutor and latterly as the dean of the college, and so heard musicians such as guitarist John Scofield and Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone before anyone else had the opportunity. His most famous discovery, Pat Metheny, actually approached Burton and ended up teaching briefly at Berklee.
“Pat came up to me before a gig we were playing down in Missouri and he made it very clear that he knew all the tunes we were going to be playing and that he’d set his mind on sitting in with my band,” says Burton, laughing at the then teenage guitarist’s chutzpah. “Of course, when he started playing, it was obvious he could back this up and he was with my band for a while before he got his own deal with ECM and went on to great things with his own band.”
Metheny and Chick Corea are among a group of musicians with whom Burton has formed lasting collaborations – a Gary Burton Quartet-style band with Metheny, Steve Swallow and drummer Antonio Sanchez has been touring the US recently – and who have put other musicians Burton’s way. It was Corea who suggested to Burton that he should hire the young saxophonist he’d been playing with during a masterclass at Berklee, hence Tommy Smith’s arrival in the Burton group that released the Whiz Kids album on ECM in 1986.
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I have these long associations,” says Burton. “I mean, Chick and I have played together every year over the past thirty-six, thirty-seven years and Pat and I go back thirty-five or so years. Maybe it’s because we don’t play together all the time, just do however many concerts it is we have and then go off and do our other things, that we still get on. You get these warring partnerships especially in show business: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, they were famous for it. But I remember also for quite a long time I’d arrive in a hall somewhere and the crew would say, Yeah, we had a band through here not long ago and they had that instrument you play but they fought the whole time. I’d know immediately it was the Modern Jazz Quartet they were talking about because I did a tour once with Milt Jackson, who desperately wanted to leave MJQ but couldn’t afford to, and he told me all those stories about their squabbling.”
The dates with Scottish National Jazz Orchestra reunite Burton not just with Smith, whose career Burton has followed with interest, but also with the arranging talents of Mike Gibbs, whose writing Burton championed very early with his quartet, and other Berklee alumni including Manu Pekar, Christian Jacob and Geoffrey Keezer who have contributed settings of Wayne Shorter’s music to the programme.
Big bands don’t figure so much on Burton’s CV, vibes tending to become overpowered in such company, although he has played with notable examples including the GRP Records all-star ensemble and Germany’s WDR Big Band. Oddly enough, for such a keen-eared appreciator of sophisticated jazz composition, there’s not a single Wayne Shorter composition in Burton’s extensive discography either.
“I know and it’s an omission I’ve been meaning to put right for a long time now,” he says. “I’ve played Wayne’s music with other musicians and always enjoyed the challenge his compositions offer because he doesn’t follow the usual compositional formats and harmonisation. When Tommy [Smith] proposed this idea I jumped at the chance because he has a band that’s really well organised and is used to getting into different composers’ music, plus he’s chosen arrangers who understand how to allow the vibes to function in a big band situation. So all I have to do is add my two cents’ worth and I’m really looking forward to it.”

From The Herald, September 10, 2009.

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