Gary Burton: Common Ground


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What I love most about Gary Burton's playing is his gentle aggression. You always sense that Gary is putting everything he has into his vibraphone and taking risks to produce exciting ideas. But there's a cat's-paw tenderness, too, that provokes thinking on the part of the listener, and the result always sounds as though Gary were strumming a guitar rather than hitting steel keys. The other consistent quality about Gary's playing is that he swings religiously. All of these qualities are front and center on Gary's new album, Common Ground (Mack Avenue) [Photo at top, courtesy of Gary Burton]

I spoke with Gary yesterday. More with him in a moment.

This is Gary's first album with his new quartet, which was formed last year. It features guitarist Julian Lage [pictured], bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Most of the tracks are originals, contributed by bandmembers. There's just one ballad (My Funny Valentine), one by Keith Jarrett (Your Quiet Place) and two by non-quartet pianist Vadim Nesolovkyi (Last Snow and Late Night Sunrise).

The beauty of these pieces and the respective solos is that they never bog down in cliches or wind up sounding like adult contemporary exercises. There's a persistent jazz-fusion fury behind the works and a cosmic consiousness—sparing the listener the relentless noise so prevalent on many albums with a '70s retro feel today. Fusion originally wasn't supposed to be the electronic version of a mechanical bull ride. It was thoughtful and mentally stimulating. [Pictured, from left, Gary Burton, Julian Lage, Antonio Sanchez and Scott Colley]

This is what makes Gary special from the outset. He was one of the early architects of jazz-rock fusion in 1967, with the release of Duster. Back then, the music wasn't preoccupied with crashing musical sounds into one another like some sorty of manic bumper-cars derby. Nor was it about high-volume solo triathlons. Instead, there was a non-blues, theoretical exploration of uncharted territory using delicate precision tools rather than caps of dynamite.

Gary brings his chamber-jazz game here, using his signature four-mallet technique to get his instrument ringing like fork tines tapping lightly on crystal. Guitarist Lage is a perfect foil, bouncing off of Gary's ideas with an acoustic esthetic. Solley's bass also is in a gentle zone—not as a relentless time keeper but as a couch-sitting participant in the dialogue. And Sanchez's drums aren't tailgating but elegantly and lightly stroking to season the mix.

This is what's most extraordinary about the album—how the instruments are arranged and miked. They all are actually working together musically and sonically. It's like watching four colors flow through tubes into one.

Among the album's top tunes are Gary's own Was It So Long Ago and Lage's Etude and Banksy. This is jazz fusion the way it was meant to be: Intellectual, democratic, engaging, conversational and always mindful that someone's brain needs to consume it.

I spoke to Gary yesterday afternoon about the album:

“My inspritation for the band was a classical string quartet, where everyone plays a fairly equal role. I wish I could say it was something I did, but the sound we produced was really a mater of bringing the right musicians together and letting the collective chemistry work.

“What was important was for everyone to fit in neatly and blend with each other. That's what you're hearing. What I can contribute as the leader is to give good instructions to the players before we start songs. If I can properly describe what I'm looking for and what the song is about, everyone will know what to do.

“But you don't want to over-explain. These musicians have a good instinct for what's needed. With them, I can just relax and go with the flow. Each musician came to the album knowing that they didn't have to prove anything. You sensed immediately that this wasn't a group that was going to fall back on the usual stuff or try to re-invent the wheel.

“When you find yourself in a situation where you're clicking, a  lot of the burden of what you should be doing is automatically answered. I've had this happen only three of four times in my career. One of those bands was with Stan Getz, Roy Haynes and Steve Swallow in the '60s. This new quartet has that same kind of chemistry."

JazzWax tracks: You'll find The New Gary Burton Quartet: Common Ground at iTunes and here.

JazzWax clip: Here's the New Gary Burton Quartet performing Afro Blue last year in Vienna. Dig how Gary works with four mallets, making them seem like only two at times and about 12 at others...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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