New Collection Spans Gary Burton’s Boundless Career


Gary Burton says his artistic pursuits were based on intuition.

(Photo: Courtesy Gary Burton)

Gary Burton’s new release encapsulates a remarkable, unprecedented career. In his first interview in about two years, Burton recently discussed his five-LP, 35-track compilation, Take Another Look: A Career Retrospective (Mack Avenue).

“I’m humbled to see the range of experience that’s here and what that added up to,” he said over the phone from his home in Florida. “To know that your music can be listened to for decades is special.”

The most influential four-mallet vibraphonist of modern jazz—who spent 33 years at Berklee College of Music in the roles of professor, dean and executive vice president—“stepped back” in 2017 from his six-decade career because of health issues. “I first recorded in 1960 when I was 17,” he noted, “so I had a fulfilling career.”

Burton even bequeathed the bars of the vibraphone that he’d owned since high school to a Berklee grad, Vid Jamnik. “The bars are the only things that really count,” Burton said. “I’d gotten new frames and resonators over the years, but it’s the bars that make the instrument. Funny thing is, I don’t miss the vibraphone.” He no longer owns one, instead playing the piano, which was his first instrument as a young prodigy. (He also won a national marimba contest when he was 9.)

Take Another Look includes tunes that Burton and compilation co-producer Nick Phillips felt best represented his identity. “It had been a long time since I heard the older records from 30 years ago, so I had to do a lot of listening,” said Burton, who was approached three years ago to consider the project by Denny Stilwell, president of Mack Avenue. The imprint released the vibraphonist’s final studio date in 2013.

The anthology includes tracks from Burton’s tenure with RCA, Atlantic, ECM, GRP, Concord Jazz and Mack Avenue. It also features a dazzling array of collaborators, such as Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Astor Piazzolla, Stéphane Grappelli and Carla Bley, as well as guitarists Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Julian Lage.

Country icon Chet Atkins helped get Burton signed to RCA Victor, which issued his leader debut, New Vibe Man In Town, in 1961. Burton’s 11 albums for the label frequently explored a blend of jazz and country music, resulting in Americana recordings like Tennessee Firebird.

Burton then moved to the Atlantic label. There he ranged from rocking out the Gil Evans tune “Las Vegas Tango” on Good Vibes (1970) to taking a wild live ride at the Montreux Jazz Festival with bandoneon legend Piazzolla on “Nuevo Tango.” “We didn’t think we had connected,” Burton said of the Montreux show. “We went on after midnight, after Miles Davis went long, and we were exhausted from touring. I felt it was not my best night, but I took the tapes home and it was great.” The concert was released in 1987 as The New Tango and became one of Burton’s biggest hits.

The vibraphonist said the wide variety of his artistic pursuits was based on creative intuition. “With the country and jazz, then the rock and jazz, I never set out to try a trend,” he said. “I just wanted to play different music. I was always different. I liked playing with four mallets, because I wanted to be able to play harmony and chords. I had always been musically restless, which is why I also wanted to try out playing tango.”

During his ECM years, label owner Manfred Eicher decided to record Corea and Burton as a duo, which the pair didn’t think would work. “It [was] too esoteric,” Burton said. “But we were finally convinced and we recorded Crystal Silence [1973]. Then we were to go on the road. I thought, ‘Here we are in a 4,000-seat concert hall at the University of Michigan, and we’re going to look like two mice on stage playing introspective chamber music.’ Pat [Metheny], who was in my band at the time, was so excited that he volunteered to carry my vibes, so he could go. Well, it sold out. And eventually the album sold the most of any of my albums.”

After a string of ECM dates featuring Metheny, Burton signed on to GRP for eight albums over the course of eight years, playing music from the Benny Goodman songbook to his biggest adventure at the time: the 1991 album Cool Nights. “This was my attempt to see if I could sell smooth jazz, which was so predictable and repetitive, with music that wasn’t brain-dead,” he said. “The DownBeat reviewer said that it was the best elevator music ever heard, and the album sold the least of anything in my catalog.”

For his final quartet with Lage, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sánchez, Burton recorded two Mack Avenue albums: Common Ground and Guided Tour. He said it was one of the best bands he’d played with.

Lage considers his learning experience with Burton a touchstone: “Gary has always been so generous,” he said. “He was exemplary in all ways. Gary understood all the angles of the music, from Americana to avant-garde. I had been a fan of his music as a youngster from the Duster album [1967] to all the work he had done with Metheny. I continue to be deeply moved by how honest and sincere and soulful he had been with all styles of music. Everything ends up sounding like authentic Gary Burton.”

Burton’s got an important gig coming up, though: playing borrowed vibes for his grandson in Los Angeles at a school show-and-tell session: “I’ll have to get in shape to let my grandchildren see what I used to do,” he said. DB

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