By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON – Seven-time GRAMMY® AWARD winning jazz vibraharpist, composer, arranger, jazz educator, and mentor of dozens of jazz and pop instrumentalists, Gary Burton, celebrated his 70th birthday in January 2013, and is presently embarked on a world tour with his quartet performing his latest 10-tracks Guided Tour CD on the Mack Avenue label. The New Gary Burton Quartet as Burton likes to call it – combines the masterful inventor of the pianistic style of four-mallet technique as an alternative to the prevailing two-mallet technique, with the proven and polished talents of veteran bassist Scott Colley, the imaginative and skillful guitarist Julian Lage, and ingenious drummer Antonio Sanchez, to produce one of his very best albums since the 2011 Common Ground (Mack Avenue) release.
The Guided Tour CD has energy and vibrancy on the more lively tracks, but is subtle and smooth on the ballads. The New Gary Burton Quartet kicked off its September 12-13, 2013 run at DC’s Blues Alley Jazz Club with a set that included compositions from Guided Tour featuring mostly music written by all the members of the band. The ensemble has already toured with the new music in Europe (May 2013), and is currently touring the USA in September and October.
On Guided Tour, Burton sought out original material from all the group’s members (as he did with Common Ground), illuminating their wide range of cross-cultural musical styles. “They outdid themselves this time,” he says. The program includes Legacy—a haunting ballad written by Scott Colley to honor his recently deceased father—and the two Antonio Sanchez pieces that bookend the disc: the splashy Latin-themed opener, Caminos, featuring solos from only the percussion instruments (drums and vibes); and Monk Fish, a romp on familiar chords infused with the wry humor found in the music of bop-era pianist Thelonious Monk.
Burton was recently named Downbeat Magazine’s 2013 Readers Poll ‘Favorite Vibe Player’ and continues to amass accolades of accomplishments over his 50 years in the music business: He is also celebrating the 40th anniversary of his ongoing collaboration with pianist Chick Corea (winning yet another GRAMMY® AWARD in 2013 for their most recent project, Hot House). And if that is not enough, as he recounts in his September 2013 autobiography, Learning To Listen (Berklee Press), Burton was already a steadily working musician in rural Indiana in his high school years, before heading for Nashville, recording the very first jazz-and-country album (with guitarist Hank Garland), and scoring a major-label record contract—all before entering the Berklee College of Music at the age of 17, in 1960.
Throughout his career, Burton has “paid it forward,” introducing other precocious young artists to the jazz world—Larry Coryell, Pat Metheny, Donny McCaslin, Makoto Ozone—and guitarist Julian Lage, who made his first recording with Burton in 2004 at the age of 15, has continued as the next recruit to that echelon. Lage further develops as a front-line collaborator on this new album, able to match the virtuosity of Burton himself.
The Friday night, September 13 Blues Alley show featured a repertoire of Guided Tour tunes combined with the ensemble free-wheeling improvised interactions, made for an exciting evening. The show opened with a tune called Afro Blue, an up-tempo, post-bop number in which Burton shows his unique influence and skill in his long, fluid lines and plays in an exuberant and somewhat playful fashion. Bass man Scott Colley and guitarist Lage supplied extended solos.
The Afro Blue selection provided Burton and the ensemble the opportunity to perform in an informal jam session spirit, exercising their freedom to listen and interact spontaneously. In fact, Burton played the melody with delicacy and circumspection; but in the bridge, he obliterated in a lengthy string of fast notes. When Lage played in the second chorus, he shifts between riff figures and complicated harmonic substitutions of his own devising.
You got to hand it to Lage when he played his original composition, Sunday’s Uncle, which gave the sold-out/standing room only Blues Alley crowd the smooth jazz fusion sound they came to hear. And there is Lage, the challenging young jazz improviser, digging in with heavyweight company in the Burton ensemble, which is a perfect setting for him because he is able to formulate his musical ideas, playing and composing as he admirably displayed in the Sunday’s Uncle piece.
Taking a cue from past Burton alumni member — guitarist Pat Metheny, Lage has an acute fascination with electronic echo and delay effects. He demonstrated repeatedly throughout the Guided Tour CD and in his live performance, his gifted instincts to use particularly lyrical but complex use of the so-called “chorus” device, in which a note is put through a variable time delay before being mixed back with the original sound. Like his idol Metheny, Lage has transformed this technique from a passing colour effect to a fully fledged improvising technique.
While remaining a clear cover with his own bands, The New Gary Burton Quartet enjoys recording projects with likes of Common Ground and the latest Guided Tour. On the one hand there is the most familiar Gary Burton, the smooth jazz folk-ethnic fusion artist reflected in the bright, elegantly controlled harmonic and rhythmic textures of the ensemble. Then there is Gary Burton the teacher and mentor to Lage, Sanchez, Colley and a host of others. Gary’s work in Guided Tour once again reminds us just how unpredictable he can be. His work is marked by a rampant individualism that makes it hard to categorize. Burton has used materials and artists from virtually every time and tide in jazz, often mining them with such great skill that we jazz critics have difficulty sorting them out – and that is a good thing.
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Jazz and Pop Music Critic.