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Interview: Vibes Great Gary Burton – Part 2

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In Part 1 of our interview, vibes great Gary Burton discussed the history of the vibraphone in jazz, his development of the four-mallet approach to playing vibraphone, and his early years as a sideman. Part 2 starts off with a discussion of the opportunities and challenges of playing with Stan Getz.

[Continuing from Burton’s answer at the end of Part 1] That was really the transition that made it possible for me to start my own band when [the time with Stan Getz] came to an end. I got a lot of exposure with Stan. He was at the peak of his success at that time. “The Girl From Ipanema” had just come out, and we were playing to sold out audiences and concerts, and clubs everywhere that three years. So I got a lot of visibility. And he was very generous about featuring the musicians in the band.

So that also played a part of it. But as a person, Stan was a nightmare. I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure that he would be what we call bipolar. He would lurch back and forth between being very happy and upbeat or being very paranoid and suspicious and mean. And you never knew what was going to send him off in one direction or the other. He was a terrible alcoholic at the time as well. So it was a real challenge to co-exist, to be around the guy day after day.

I’m wondering what it’s like to play with a leader where you’re walking on egg shells all the time.

You make a lot of compromises when the quality of what you’re doing is at the highest level. This band had me, Roy Haynes on drums, Steve Swallow on bass, and Stan. Those were the best possible musicians I could expect to play with. And on the good nights, Stan was incredible. As a player, he was inspirational. I learned so much from playing with him. On the bad nights I would shake my head and say, “I don’t know if I can keep on doing this.” And then it would be good for a while.

The same is true if you find yourself working with somebody who’s got a drug habit. It’s a huge hassle and it’s something you don’t want to have to deal with. But if they’re a good enough player, you’ll tend to put up with things like that because the music is working so well. And after all, it was a steady paying gig for me as well. I was 20 years old and playing with one of the biggest stars in the business. Miles [Davis] was a handful to work for, but who wouldn’t take the job if he called?

I know of musicians who have played together for decades who hate each other. The Modern Jazz Quartet for one. As a matter of fact, you should have heard Milt [Jackson] talking about John Lewis.

I hadn’t heard that.

And yet they kept playing together because Milt couldn’t seem to make a band of his own last. So he would keep coming back to the MJQ because that’s where they could make the best money. And it went on for 40-some years.

I don’t remember the name, but there was this piano player who was playing with Mingus, who obviously had that same reputation for volatility.

Yes. Definitely.

They were trying to do something, and Mingus kept getting down on this guy. He couldn’t do it right, couldn’t do it right – no that’s not it, no that’s not it. Finally in frustration this guy just started banging on the keys randomly. And Mingus looked at him and said, “Yeah, that’s it.”

(Laughs) Yeah, Mingus was a real trip. I don’t know why it was that so many of the leaders of bands back in that era were ridiculous to get along with, to be around. Some of them were just crazy because they were crazy. Thelonious Monk, sweet gentle guy, but had some kind of mental problems throughout his life.

But it was a challenge to work with these people and yet that was a piece of the mystique at the time. Nowadays the musicians in our business are very savvy business people and very together. You don’t see much drug use anymore in the jazz world and everybody takes cares of business. And lives in a nice house and has families and sort of a normal life. Back in the ’40s and ’50s and earlier it was, the musician’s life was a whole other kind of story.

Going back to the vibes players. Is there anyone who isn’t as well-known to the public who really catches your ear?

There are a handful of talented younger players, younger meaning they’re just younger than me. Some of them might be in their 40s or 50s, who I respect and admire—Dave Samuels, who is a little younger than me, [and] Joe Locke in New York. Among newer ones, [there is] Warren Wolf, a young guy from Baltimore who plays a lot with Christian McBride. And I think he would be probably in his late 20s now.

And Stefon Harris—I consider him the main young player of the day mostly because he’s found a style of his own. He doesn’t play like me or like Milt. He actually has found his own way of playing. And he’s very good at coming up with very original projects for his records. And so I think he’s probably going to be the guy who is considered the most important in the younger generation of players.

You’re well known for having brought in different influences in jazz. You play an instrument that’s so identified with jazz and yet you’re thought of as being responsible for bringing in influences into jazz that were outside of the medium.

Yes. I’ve come to the realization that there’s two kinds of jazz musicians. One kind of player has a very strong style and way of playing and that’s what they do. And they stick with it, and do it exceedingly well, and we love them. That would be Milt Jackson, that would be Wes Montgomery.

Then you get the people who are restless spirits who are always open and looking for something different. Something they haven’t tried before. Something they’re curious about. And then you’re talking about people like Chick Corea, for instance whose one of the most diverse musicians I’ve ever known.

And I know I fall into this category. I get attracted to—I play tango music a lot through the 1990s and so on for 20 years. I’ve done three albums of tango music with Argentine musicians from Piazzolla’s band. And I’ve brought in country music, rock music and so on. I get into classical music. I get intrigued by what’s going on around me. And if it grabs me, if I connect with it, I start to imagine how to make use of it.

There are a few things that I will hopefully be credited for as a pioneer. One is my four-mallet playing. Another one is the starting what was first called jazz rock in 1967 when I started my first band, later became jazz fusion by the 1970s. But the idea of bringing in rock influences, different kinds of harmony structures, different time feels and using more electric instruments.

When I first started doing that in ’67, we were the only band doing it. But by ’70 all kinds of people were doing it. Miles came out with Bitches Brew and John McClaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra arrived on the scene. That was certainly a genre of jazz that I pioneered.

And later on I feel like the idea of duet concerts was something that I pioneered with Chick. We sort stumbled into that combination in 1972, and 40 [years] later we’re still doing it.

That’s a great transition because that’s the next topic. The reason for this correspondence is the release of Hot House. That marks 40 years with Chick Corea. Can you talk about that collaboration? What the both of you bring to the table? Why you feel it clicks so well?

We didn’t plan – it started by accident. Actually, sort of well-known story, we were in a jazz festival separately in Munich in ’72. And the promoter had the idea to ask the players on the concert that night to have a jam session at the end of the night as a finale. And he ran around and asked everybody if they would do it. And the only two people that said yes turned out to be me and Chick. So we laughed about that and said, “Well what the heck. We’ll do something.”

So at the sound check he taught me one of his new songs and we went out at the end of the concert and did it. The audience loved it, something different. And as it happened, Manfred Eicher, who owned ECM records, was there. That was his hometown. And he had already knew Chick. He came up and introduced himself and said, “You guys have to make a record like this.” And we thought it was a little too esoteric, a little too crazy. Who wanted to listen to vibes and piano for a whole hour. And we kind of put him off, but he kept getting in touch with us and talking it up. And finally we agreed and got into the studio and recorded this first record, Crystal Silence.

Which is a classic.

Yes. Well we did the whole thing in three hours. We had put aside three days to record because we hadn’t played together before, so we didn’t have music worked up. We figured it would take a while to do this. We got started and we spent about 20 minutes trying out a new tune, making a little arrangement. And then we’d do a take. And it would sound great. We’d think, “Wow, guess we got that one.” And we’d move on to the next. We did all first takes except for one song that we did twice. And we sat around listening to the record for a couple hours. And then said, “Well, we’re done.” We changed our plane tickets and went home. And that’s when we discovered that we had this really strong rapport – we could almost guess what we were going to do next. I’d never had that level of interaction with another player before and I don’t think Chick had either.

We still didn’t expect that we would do it again. ECM was a little German label with only a few records out. It had no U.S. distribution. We thought it would fly under the radar. But as soon as the record came out, we started getting calls to play concerts. We had the same agent/manager in those days – we still do, in fact.

And so we played the first concert at a college in Michigan. And that went well and we just kept on going. And now we play every year. Sometimes if we have a new record out, we do more touring than usual. But even in any other year, we’ll do at least one short tour or three or four weekends of festivals or something just to keep connected. I had guessed that at some point, we would move on. We would evolve in different directions, we would lose interest or it would get boring. And when we hit the 20-year mark, I was even saying to myself, “Eh, we’re probably near the end of this. It’s not going to go on much longer.”

When we got to the 30-year mark, I said, “You know, this may just last. We seem to always have new things to do and new material that comes to mind. And we’re still having a great time on the concerts.” And he still is the one musician I play with that is on another level of rapport. It almost seems magical half the time.

How would you say that both your’s and his playing have evolved over those 40 years?

We’ve each individually grown as players. I’ve discovered all kinds of music and done all kinds of music over the past 40 years, from playing tango with Piazzolla to all the different bands I’ve had. And so has Chick in his history. And so when we get together every year for more gigs or new gigs and when new material, we bring with us all the stuff we’ve been experiencing as we’ve matured and evolved as musicians over the years.

We’re both similar in that we both like to constantly explore new possibilities and try new kinds of things. That’s one of the things we share. We have a lot of other things in common too. We both came of age in Boston. Chick grew up there. And I went to school there. So we had a lot of the same early teachers and influences. And we both were out of the post-bop era. We grew up playing bebop and as we moved to New York and got our careers going, we became part of the newer, more modern generation that followed. And we both play keyboard instruments, so we think a lot alike in the way we picture the music on our instruments. So I think there’s just a lot of common ground for us as well.

I do want to spend the last couple minutes talking about your role as an educator. You spent many decades teaching at Berklee, correct?

I did. Thirty three years.

And I think that you have an online course now that you’ve developed.

Yes. I do.

I listened to a part of a lecture that’s on YouTube that you gave.

Yeah. I think that somebody pointed that out to me. It was at Loyola in New Orleans where I did a clinic for the music students there. And it was videoed and then ended up on YouTube, which is okay with me.

Are there any particular aspects of your techniques that you think are unique to your style—to the way that you teach? Are there any particular things that you try to emphasize?

Yes. Well, here’s the thing. Most people learn to improvise on their own, listening to records, endless hours of noodling on their instrument in the bedroom with all their spare time. That’s traditionally how people learn. You couldn’t study improvisation back in the 1930s, ’40s, [and] ’50s. There were no books and no teachers. You essentially learned from other musicians and from listening to records.

So when you talk to people about improvisation, there’s a lot of different ways people will describe it and explain how they came to understand it. The truth is we all are doing the same kinds of things. We have different ways of talking about it and explaining it and picturing it. When I started teaching, my goal was to find a way to organize these various elements of improvisation, the working parts of it that we all make use of when we play. That is, our knowledge of chords and scales and harmonic progressions. And in a way that I could teach it and explain it to the greatest array of students that it would be easy for people to follow and understand.

And I had learned a lot of my music by the trial and error method. And one of the great things that Berklee did for me when I came there as a student, was it gave me a very organized and logical education in harmony and music theory and melodic themes and so on, that explained a lot of what I had sort of figured out on my own, but didn’t know how to talk about it or understand it or organize it in my mind.

So I wanted to accomplish that with my teaching of improvisation. And so I think there are these concepts. And I’ll just briefly say that I often use—we all often do, people that teach improve—we use an analogy to speech. When we talk, we don’t think about nouns and pronouns and verbs and sentence structure and so on. We just think of sort of what we want to communicate. And as we picture it, words appear in our mind and we simultaneously speak them. And that is because we’ve learned a big vocabulary of words. And the rules of grammar that we’ve assimilated and our language abilities that our brain has allows us to then use them spontaneously. We don’t have to stop and organize those sentences our self. They just come pouring out.

The same happens for the improviser. We learn vocabulary, which is getting familiar with chords, outlines and scales. And we learn grammar, which is how the chords move from one to another and how voice leading takes place. And they get assimilated. And then the same language skill, gift, however you want to call it, works for us as improvisers.

We are playing along and something trigger—a harmonic chord change takes place and it kind of triggers a connection in our memory bank and out comes a melodic phrase that fits it. And as it comes into our conscious mind, we simultaneously play it on our instrument. It’s just like talking only we’re using a different language.

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About Phillip Barnett

Phillip Barnett is a software geek with multiple, conflicting musical fantasies. He has played jazz piano, folk guitar and klezmer clarinet (not all at the same time - that would look ridiculous and would probably hurt his back).