Gary Burton: Take Another Look. A Career Retrospective

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Issued in celebration of Burton’s 75th birthday year, this sumptuously produced boxed set of prime vinyl comes with a free download code. Drawn from six decades, these three-and-a half hours of consistently arresting music feature the four-mallet maestro in the company of musicians as accomplished as one might wish. The box advertises that guitarist Chet Atkins features: he does, but as producer, not player, on Faded Love from Burton’s Tennessee Firebird of 1966.

As distinct from Milt Jackson’s surpassing swing as it is from the oblique abstractions of Bobby Hutcherson, Burton’s music has long had its own freshly projected identity, synthesizing elements of post-bop jazz with both classical tonalities and a refigured blues sensibility, country, rock and tango. All such receives superb documentation here: witness, e.g., “Joy Spring” (1961) and “Hot House” (2012), “Le Tombeau de Couperin 1- Prelude” (2001, but first recorded by Burton in 1967), “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” (1967), “Faded Love” (1966), “Country Roads” (1968) and “Nuevo Tango” (1986).

Excellent as the music is, I have two reservations: First, the idea of presenting material solely from the major record labels featured means, e.g., that while we get three, diverse duo performances from Burton and Chick Corea (“Crystal Silence”, “Native Sense” and “Hot House”) there is nothing from an album like GNP Crescendo’s Right Time, Right Place, with its magical readings by Burton and Paul Bley (p) of Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino” and “Olhos de Gato”. Second, the premise of this career retrospective is that each selection features Burton as either leader or co-leader. There is thus nothing from a key period in Burton’s development, namely, the time he spent in Stan Getz’s mid-1960s quartet. 

Neil Tesser’s sleeve essay touches on the Getz years, pointing out that Burton often had a solo spot in the gigs – and relish, here, “Chega de Saudade” from the ground-breaking 1971 Alone at Last. But as Burton’s 2013 autobiography Learning to Listen makes amply evident (building on his sleeve essay for Getz’s 1964 Nobody Else But Me session on Verve) working with Getz was crucial. “I had never before heard anyone do so much with dynamics and expression” says Burton, asserting that, as an improviser, Getz was “a poet”.

Here is the key to Burton’s own work. Blessed with the sort of formidable technical mastery that could deliver all sorts of rippling and dancing figures, at all tempi, Burton early on came to see music more as a matter of anima and atmosphere than acrobatics. Hear, especially, his soulful figures on Gil Evans’ “Las Vegas Tango” and Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence”. Burton volunteers, in the brief notes which accompany Tesser’s essay in the richly illustrated booklet, that he came of age as an artist during his time at ECM. The selection here features standout pieces, but I would have welcomed further poetic gems like “Three”, from the 1973 Seven Songs devoted to the work of Mike Gibbs, and “Innocenti” from the 1985 Slide Show with Ralph Towner – which has some of Burton’s loveliest work on marimba – being squeezed onto what are some of the shortest sides of the collection. 

If the first three albums highlight Burton the pioneer, they also evince the historical open-mindedness so evident in the delightful 1967 Paris Encounter session with Grappelli, from which “Daphne” and “Sweet Rain” come. Such open-mindedness further distinguishes the final two albums. They document a heartening, ever-lively breadth and depth of both repertoire and creative sensibility, from the “dream bands” with Brecker, Scofield, Johnson and Erskine (“Times Like These”) and Corea, Metheny, Holland and Haynes (“Question and Answer”) to the Red Norvo and Benny Goodman/Lionel Hampton tributes “Knockin’ on Wood” and “Opus Half” featuring, respectively, Eddie Daniels and Mulgrew Miller, and Makoto Ozone. There is even some enticingly superior smooth jazz with, a.o., Bob James (“Gorgeous” and “Take Another Look”).

Fittingly, Burton’s last quartet, with Lage, Colley and Sanchez, closes things with the sensuously grooved “Caminos” from Guided Tour. The usually reliable Tesser suggests that this session marked the end of Burton’s recording career. It did not: Burton went on to feature in Eberhard Weber’s 2015 Stuttgart Hommage concert with, a.o., Jan Garbarek, Paul McCandless and Pat Metheny, subsequently released on ECM.

Discography
Disc One: RCA Victor Recordings
(A) Joy Spring; Careful; Faded Love; Sing Me Softly of the Blues; General Mojo’s Well Laid Plan (22.19)
(B) Fanfare/Mother of the Dead Man; Country Roads; One ,Two, 1-2-3-4 (Live) (17.15)
Disc Two: Atlantic Recordings
(A) Chega de Saudade (No More Blues); Las Vegas Tango; Boston Marathon; Grow Your Own (23.32)
(B) Como en Vietnam; Daphne; Sweet Rain; Nuevo Tango (Live) (20.33)
Disc Three: ECM Recordings

(A) Crystal Silence; Mevlevia; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (19.32)
(B) Ictus/Syndrome/Wrong Key Donkey; B & G (Midwestern Nights Dream) (18.47)
Disc Four: GRP Recordings
(A) Times Like These; Otono (Autumn); Quick and Running; Knockin’ On Wood (21.23 )
(B) Opus Half; Gorgeous; Take Another Look (19.44)
Disc Five: Concord and Mack Avenue Recordings
(A) Native Sense; Hot House; Question and Answer; Le Tombeau de Couperin 1- Prelude (22.11)
(B) Elucidation (previously unreleased); Late Night Sunrise; Caminos (21.22)
Burton (vib, elvib, marimba) with a.o. Gato Barbieri (ts); Carla Bley (p); Michael Brecker (ts); Scott Colley (b); Chick Corea (p); Larry Coryell (elg); Eddie Daniels (cl); Peter Erksine (d); Mick Goodrick (elg); Stéphane Grappelli (vn); Jerry Hahn (elg); Jim Hall (elg); Roy Haynes (d); Dave Holland (b); Bob James (p); Keith Jarrett (p); Marc Johnson (b); Steve Lacy (ss); Julian Lage (elg); Steve Marcus (ts); Pat Metheny (elg); Mulgrew Miller (p); Joe Morello (d); Bob Moses (d); Wolfgang Muthspiel (elg); Makoto Ozone (p); Astor Piazzolla (bandoneon); Bernard Purdie (d); Antonio Sanchez (d); John Scofield (elg); Steve Swallow (elb); Ralph Towner (g); Eberhard Weber (elb). Various dates and locations 1961-2012.
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