Vibraphonist Gary Burton has seven Grammys, six for projects he recorded with pianist Chick Corea. Over more than a half-century, he’s recorded more than 60 records as a bandleader. He retired from teaching nearly a decade ago, but he’s widely considered to be one of the great pedagogues of the jazz world, mentoring young players like guitarists Pat Metheny and Julian Lage in classrooms at the Berklee College of Music and in his bands. Earlier this month, Berklee Press released Burton’s autobiography, Learning to Listen, a lifer’s journey from a small Indiana farm town to concert halls across the globe.
Burton performs with his quartet — Lage, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez — at UConn’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs on Sept. 26 behind Guided Tour, their second album together, released this summer. Burton spoke to the Advocate by phone from New York about the current tour, his band’s special chemistry and what led him to write about his life and career in jazz.
[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
You are right in the middle of a tour, and I believe you’re literally in the middle of a six-night run at the Blue Note in New York. From your perspective, how does this group seem to be developing over the course of an extended stay like this that doesn’t necessarily happen during one-off concerts?
When you’re on a regular tour and you’re playing every night — maybe not every night of the week, but most — there’s a certain rhythm that gets established, and the music doesn’t change drastically from night to night. There are always variations, always surprises, because it is improvised music. It’s not going to be literally the same every night. There will be nights when the crowd is more receptive and responsive, and that makes the musicians feel more inspired. Circumstances vary from night to night, and that affects the overall playing. But when you have a band at this level, there’s a consistency. You can count on everybody playing at a pretty high level of performance every night, whether they have a cold or they are happy about something that happened that day. It doesn’t drastically change the nature of the performance, I don’t think.
This great young group you have: is there a way to describe the chemistry? Is there somebody who pushes, somebody who pulls? Can you even talk about chemistry in these terms?
To some extent, sure. Chemistry is a big factor. It’s not so much “who’s the dominant player” or “who’s the compliant member,” and that sort of thing. It really has to do with the blend of personalities that come together, and it’s rare that you find a perfect balance between all members of the same group, because each is coming from a different place. We’re talking about different backgrounds, different perspectives on things. And yet, you get lucky — as I have with this group — that there’s a great blend between the four of us that makes it so easy to play and also for things to happen at a very high level.
When I describe this to people, and they’re looking at me quizzically, not quite sure what I’m getting at, I tell them to picture the Beatles. There was a case of four very different musicians and people, each talented in their own unique way, but put together as a group, the chemistry they had as a foursome was awesome, which resulted in their huge success. That’s what I’m talking about here. But it’s hard to define. You can pick players that you know really well and put them together, and you get an okay combination that will always be professional and competent and well-executed, and so on. But you only get this perfect chemistry occasionally in your career. For me, it’s been about four times in the last 50 years. When it happens, you think, “Fantastic! I’ve stumbled into it again,” and you hope it lasts for awhile. But one person leaving can change it. It may not be the same if we had a substitute drummer or different guitar player, or whatever. These four unique people seem to click.
It strikes me that it’s not something you can really design. You have to put musicians together and see if they combust.
Yes. You go for people whose playing you know, and who you know would be compatible in general terms with what you’re playing, similar style, concepts, and so on. But there’s no way to predict how high the rapport will go until you actually try it. In this case, I put this band together originally just to do one tour. I had finished doing two years of touring with Chick Corea after we did a big world tour celebrating a double-album we put out four or five years ago [The New Crystal Silence], and I was thinking about what to do next. My manager said, “Why don’t you put together a group with Julian?” We hadn’t played together for a few years while he was in college. They said, “We’ll book you a European tour. You can do a few weeks or a month in Europe.” So that’s all I was planning to do.
Within a couple of weeks, it became obvious that this was really a terrific combination of players, so I arranged for us, when we got back to New York, to go into the studio and make our first record together, which was called Common Ground. That came out three years ago, and we toured after the record came out, as you do. Then it became time to do another record together, which has just now come out, so we’re touring again to promote Guided Tour, the newest one. The group’s been together for about three years, even though, like I said, when I started it, I really had no big game plan. But when I discovered how strong the group was, it was obvious I should keep it together.
With Common Ground, you had been playing quite a bit together before you went into the studio. Is that the best time to record a group?
Absolutely. And in fact, for Chick Corea and I, all the records we make, we do a short tour first to try out the new music and shape it in front of audiences. We might do 15 dates or something, just a short two- or three-week tour, and then we record. We get a much better result when we record, because we’re much more settled in with the music at that point, and we’ve made adjustments. There are some things you just don’t know until you do it in front of an audience. You can rehearse a piece — get it virtually perfect and everything sounds right to you — and then you play it in front of an audience, and immediately you notice the introduction went on too long, the ending isn’t strong enough, and so on. You’d never notice it until you played it on the gig. Things suddenly become obvious, and so you make adjustments and correct them, and so on. Whenever possible, I like to play new music first in live performance, and we did that for Common Ground. We started with the tour instead of starting with the record.
In the case of Guided Tour, we did the more traditional thing: we made the record first, because I didn’t have the opportunity schedule-wise to put together a tour before the recording. It needed to be done. So we added two extra days in front of the recording sessions to rehearse and get a start on the music. Julian flew down to Florida to spend a weekend at my place, so he and I could get a head start, choosing the tunes and fine-tuning the arrangements, and so on.
Can you listen to those albums and tell that one, Common Ground, was recorded at the end of a tour and the other, Guided Tour, was recorded before a tour, but after the group was well established?
Probably not. But what I do hear when I listen to those records is that what we started with the group three years ago has continued to evolve, continued to grow. And I’m pleased to see that the music on the second record is not a totally different direction or something drastically different. It feels like the group has really gone a long way to establishing its sound and its style and its range of kinds of music that we do. I think somebody who hears the second record would definitely recognize that this is the same band that they heard three years ago on the first record, which is what I intended and hoped would be the outcome. And part of it is because all four of us write music and contribute to the repertoire. It’s almost equal in terms of how many contributions come from each of the players, and that often isn’t the case. A lot of times a band will only feature the writing of the leader, for instance, and other cases, even in my circumstances, I’m open to members writing music, but in some cases it isn’t that compatible with the group. They’ll give me tunes to try out that I just don’t see working with this particular combination and overall identity that the group has, so I turn them down. In this group, everybody seems to understand what kind of thing will work for this combination of players. They can hear the other musicians playing the music. But sometimes people submit music to me and I can’t imagine how they picture it, because I can’t see how it would make sense for the particular group that we have at the time. So it depends on the players. Some people write very much what occurs to them with not much of a focus on who will be playing it. It just depends on the individual players.
Having published your autobiography recently: was that a weight off your chest in some way, and has it allowed you to maybe get a sense of what the future holds? Is there a cleansing of some kind that takes place when you do that? Or was this just the time to write it? [Burton, who came out in 1994, recently married his partner. He writes, among many other topics, about being gay in the jazz world in his book.]
I think it was the time to write it. I think a lot of people when they get into their later years — I’m 70 now, and I started thinking about writing this book when I was 60. I noodled away at it for years before I got serious about it. But that’s an age when you start to look back over your career experience and the thing’s you’ve done, the journeys you’ve had. I think if I had tried to write a book earlier, I wouldn’t have had a sense of where things were going, and I wouldn’t know the rest of the story, so to speak. It still amazes me that somebody like Barack Obama could write his life story when he was 26. When I got into my ‘60s and retired from my teaching career, my second career, and just focused on performing again, I could look back and I could see the arc of what I had been doing, my body of work, and so on. I wasn’t ready to retire completely, but I could see where the story was going by that time. The question then becomes: Why would I write my own story? Would it be interesting or informative to other people? I thought it probably could be, and I wanted to write it myself, so I decided to take my time, and it took me several years of working at it when I had time and gradually seeing it take shape. And after a certain point, I became convinced that it was going to turn out fine.
The weight being lifted off me had to do with getting it published and what people would think of it. I’ve been putting out records all these years — 60 records or so — and it’s not a big deal for me to have another record release. I have a fairly high level of confidence in what’s going to happen, how it will be received, and so on. I’m used to putting out records all these years. But this is my first and only book, so I’ve been on pins and needles for the last few months, especially as it’s gotten closer and closer to the actual release date, just to see what kind of reactions I would get. Would it be ignored? Would other jazz writers and critics dismiss it as amateurish? Would people like it? Would people get something out of it? So until it hit the street and I started getting feedback that, frankly, has been overwhelmingly positive, it’s been pretty gratifying and kind of a surprise that it’s gotten such a strong response. I’m very relieved as well as pleased.
As far as my music career goes, people are always asking me: Do you have any big projects left that you want to do that you may get around to soon? I don’t think so. I think I’ve actually managed to do all the things that I set out to do, and now I feel this responsibility to maintaining the level of the body of work that I’ve created and maintaining the level and integrity of the music I play and the people I play with, and so on, that it’s my job to keep this going as long as I’m still capable of doing so. That’s what I feel like is my mission at this point.
I read that you’ll be teaching a masterclass when you’re here at UConn.
I’m doing two. One is a Q&A with a bunch of students and the other is a masterclass that happens in the afternoon. I don’t do a lot of teaching these days other than my online course that I have. But standing up in a classroom and teaching at this kind of workshop level is something I do only a few times a year. It’s always fun to do it.
The New Gary Burton Quartet
Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m., $40-$60, Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, 2132 Hillside Road, Unit 3104, Storrs, (860) 486-4226, jorgensen.uconn.edu