Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Burton, Gary

In his frequent and frutful collaborations with guitarist Pat Metheny, keyboardist Chick Corea and bassist Steve Swallow, vibraphonist and composer Gary Burton stands out for his imaginative compositions and multi-mallet technique. A leader in developing early jazz-rock, Burton served on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music for decades and retired as the vice-president of the acclaimed music institution.

                   Gary Burton, by Jos L. Knaepen

Gary Burton was born on January 23rd, 1943 in Anderson, Indiana, a small town in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. Burton was self-taught on both the vibraphone and marimba and he began using four mallets when he was eight years old. Burton has listed Bill Evans as a major influence on his playing as well as guitarist Jim Hall, who he cites as a strong influence in his comping style. Burton moved to Nashville, Tennessee when he was seventeen years old and it was here that his career took off.

He recorded with country guitarists Hank Garland for the highly influential album Jazz Winds in 1961 and he also recorded with Chet Atkins for the 1960 album After the Riot at Newport. The Newport album was recorded on the back of mansion porch that RCA Records had rented during the festival. Unfortunately, the band’s performance earlier that day had been cancelled due to crowd riots. In particular, Jazz Winds from a New Direction had a profound impact on musicians including Pat Metheny and George Benson, both of who have cited the album as being a key recording for starting their interest in playing jazz guitar.

Also during this time, Burton attended the Berklee School of Music but he only stayed for one year, from the fall of 1960 to the spring of 1961. While in Boston, Burton studied with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy as well as conductor/arranger Michael Gibbs. Burton’s career by this time was in full swing; he released his debut solo album New Vibe Man in Town on RCA Records in 1961 and followed this up with 1962's Who is Gary Burton?

In 1963, Burton toured with pianist George Shearing in the United States and Japan. He left Shearing and joined tenor saxophonist Stan Getz in 1964, staying with him through 1966. During 1964, Burton appeared on trombonist Bob Brookmeyer’s album Bob Brookmeyer and Freinds, which featured pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Ron Carter. While with Getz, Burton appeared with the saxophonist and Brazilian musician Joao Gilberto at Carnegie Hall in 1964 and his heard on the songs “Here’s That Rainy Day" from that concert and on the song “When the World Was Young" recorded in Paris in November of 1966.

In 1967, Burton assembled a cast of musicians that included guitarist Larry Coryell, drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Steve Swallow for the album Duster. This album is one of the first albums to mix blues, rock and jazz ,well before Miles Davis’s electric experimental albums beginning in 1969. On Duster, Burton and Coryell combined to create some hypnotic and dense textural movements, as heard on “Sweet Rain.” The group also shows their swing side on “Portsmouth Figurations,” which builds on the strong pocket of Roy Haynes. On “Well Laid Plan,” Coryell plays riffs and melodic lines, which were later adapted by contemporary players like Pat Metheny.

The core group of Coryell, Burton and Swallow toured during 1968 with Bob Moses on board, replacing Roy Haynes. The quartet played at Carnegie Hall in February 1968 and it was recorded for the live release Gary Burton Quartet In Concert Live. The group played through many songs, some of which included “Blue Comedy," composed by Burton’s friend Mike Gibbs from Berklee. Burton continued to explore the rock sound in 1970 when he recorded with pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Steve Swallow for the Atlantic release Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett. Songs of note include Swallow's “Como En Vietnam.

Burton continued to record with different artists, teaming up with violinist Stephane Grappelli for the 1969 release Paris Encounters, an album full of Burton’s deep, harmonic capabilities. This can especially be heard on the songs “Blue In Green" and “Falling Grace."

While Burton was with Stan Getz in the mid-1960s he had befriended pianist Chick Corea who had joined the group towards the end of Burton’s tenure but their relationship continued. In 1972, the duo recorded the first of several duet albums, this first was for ECM entitled Crystal Silence. Burton and Corea display a kinetic partnership on this recording, sounding as if they’ve been playing together for decades. As active as Burton has been in music he has been equally as passionate about education. In 1971, Burton made his way back to the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he started an association that continued for well over thirty years. Also that year, his solo album Alone at Last garnered him his first Grammy Award.

Burton recorded with an album with guitarist Ralph Towner in 1974 called Matchbook for the ECM label. Songs of note from the album include “Icarus." Burton had always been one to include guitarists in his group and in 1975, a young guitarist from Missouri named Pat Metheny joined his group, the start of a more than thirty-year collaboration.

During the 1980s, Burton continued to record and perform just as actively as he did in the previous two decades. In 1980, Burton recorded a live album with Chick Corea, In Concert: Zurich. The previous year the duo recorded their second album as duo entitled Duet. Burton also recorded an album with Berklee College of Music students for JVC in 1985 and also recorded an album with Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla called The New Tango at Montreux in 1986. The two can be heard on the song “Milonga is Coming" In 1989, Burton recorded with Pat Metheny and drummer Peter Erskine for the GRP album Reunion.

Burton didn’t lose a beat in the 1990s either, recording on dozens of albums including several of his own. He recorded and toured with Chick Corea once again, this time in 1997. The two recorded Native Sense: The New Duets n Los Angeles and it featured them doing a strong rendition of the Telonious Monk song “Four in One."

Since the new millennium, Burton has remained as active as ever as an educator and as a performer. He combined forces with friends Steve Swallow and Pat Metheny in 2007, touring the country with drummer Antonio Sanchez in revamped version of Burton’s original quartet. The group recorded a live album at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California. The group can be heard reinterpreting old classics like “Falling Grace" and “Sea Journey" among others. Burton has rose through the ranks of faculty at the Berklee College of Music, retiring in 2004 as the executive vice president of the school.

Burton and Corea released a new duets album in 2008 entitled The New Crystal Silence. Some songs of note from the album include “Waltz for Debby" and “Senor Mouse. The album builds on the chemistry found on the duo’s previous two releases but the two musicians manage to elevate their game even more stronger on this release. Both display their virtuosity, playing advanced melodic and harmonic passages with precise execution and precision.

Select Discography

as Gary Burton

New Vibe Man In Town (RCA, 1961)

Who is Gary Burton? (RCA, 1962)

The Groovy Sound of Music (RCA, 1964)

Duster (RCA, 1967)

A Genuine Tong Funeral (RCA, 1968)

Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett (RCA, 1969)

Good Vibes (RCA, 1970)

Crystal Silence w/Chick Corea (ECM, 1972)

The New Quartet (ECM, 1973)

Duet w/Chick Corea (ECM, 1979)

Reunion (GRP, 1989)

The New Crystal Silence (Concord Jazz, 2008)

Quartet Live w/Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow (Concord Jazz, 2009)

with Bob Brookmeyer

Bob Brookmeyer and Friends (Columbia, 1964)

with Chet Atkins

After the Riot at Newport (RCA, 1960)

Contributor: Jared Pauley