Vibraphonist Gary Burton's entire career as a musician has been about thinking outside the box and exploring new frontiers in jazz music. When he was only seventeen years old, his first recording date was with country and western guitar great Hank Garland making a (gasp!) jazz album (Jazz Winds From a New Direction (1961), and damned impressive one at that. Later on, Burton invented the four mallet technique, greatly extending the harmonic possibilities of the vibraphone. And as noted in our recent piece on Larry Coryell, Burton formed a vibes/guitar/bass/drums quartet in 1967 that anticipated the jazz-rock revolution kicked off a couple of years later by Bitches Brew. A later version of the quartet served as the starting point for one of the most brilliant and influential jazz careers of our time, that of Pat Metheny.
Fifty years later a still youthful looking Burton is not done looking to see what else he can do that's fresh and different. After casting a look back to his old 70s Quartet via a reunion with Metheny and bassist Steve Swallow (with Mexican ace drummer Antonio Sanchez), and chronicled on Quartet Live (2009), Burton is ready to move forward again with his first studio record in six years.
Common Ground, due out June 7, is credited to The New" Gary Burton Quartet to signify a fresh start, but this hardly the first time he's performed with most of these guys in his combo. Sanchez is carried over from the old" quartet, or at least the Metheny quartet that Burton toured with a few years ago. Former prodigy guitar whiz Julian Lage appeared on Burton's last two non-live records (Generations (2004) and Next Generation (2005)) while still in high school, and even contributed multiple songs per album. Scott Colley (Andrew Hill, Jim Hall, Chris Potter, Fred Hersch, Abbey Lincoln, David Binney) hadn't been a part of a Burton band, but this first-call bassist came on board at Sanchez's suggestion and is plenty up to the task.
Lage's presence in this band, like the famous Burton Quartet guitarists before him, is just as responsible for the band's imprint as the iconic vibes player. The music swings like it always did and moves in fleet-footed but shifting ways as its done for much of the Quartet's existence, but the still-young guitarist is Burton's not-so-secret weapon. His distinctive acoustic tone and European ways sharply contrasts with former occupiers of Burton's guitar chair. Burton's democracy extend to the songwriting chores, as everyone in the band got to contribute one or two songs a piece. Even former Burton pianist Vadim Neselovskyi tossed in a couple of tunes though he's not a part of this record: his mid-tempo delight Late Night Sunrise" is a great presentation for Lage as lead voice, an accompanist and soloist, whose improvising style is unhesitant and flows with a rhythm. His piercing improvising on Colley's 7/4 metered song Never The Same Way" is a dandy, too. The old standard My Funny Valentine" is undertaken by Lage alone for the first half of the track, adorning the familiar melody with various small gestures that amplify the sentimental mood of the song.
Colley, for his part, gets much solo space, and his acoustic bass also represents a shift for Burton's Quartet, since his longtime bassist Steve Swallow has long played a electric bass. His limber, straightforward style ties together the disparate sounds well, finding the dynamic spots among the drums, vies and guitar, forming a key anchor to fluid tunes like Common Ground." Pat Metheny Group drummer Sanchez, whose ability to handle complex assignments with grace and understated style gets up front on his own hot and fast bop number Did You Get It?"
In the end, it's not the individual personalities that make a Gary Burton quartet distinctive and so highly regarded: it's how those personalities work together to create its own unique group sound. As bandleader and producer, Burton knows how to get everyone's distinctive voices while at the same time channeling those voices toward a composite sonic signature. With a revamped Quartet and a mostly new set of compositions to work with, Gary Burton keeps moving forward entering his sixth decade as a recording artist.
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