Late last week I caught up with vibraphonist Gary Burton to chat about his new quartet, featuring guitarist Julian Lage. The group will be making its club debut tomorrow night through Sunday at New York's Blue Note before heading off to Europe. Gary taught himself to play the vibes at age six. After high school he came to the attention of saxophonist Boots Randolph, who took him to Nashville and introduced him to Hank Garland, Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins. [Pictured: Gary Burton and Julian Lage]
Over the course of Gary's career, the four-mallet vibist has recorded with a range of artists, including George Shearing, Stan Getz, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny. Gary also was an early pioneer of jazz-rock fusion in 1967.
During my conversation with Gary, 67, he talks about why he formed his new quartet and sheds light on his star guitarist:
JazzWax: Why form a new quartet?
Gary Burton: I haven’t had my own band for a bunch of years. My last group was a band I formed after I left my post at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2004.
JW: But why now?
GB: I wanted to form a group around guitarist Julian Lage and me. When I left Berklee, I formed a group made up of Berklee students and spent three years touring. Then in 2006 [pianist] Chick Corea and I took a year and a half to tour as a duet. Since 2008 I’ve toured with Chick and [guitarist] Pat Metheny, and I've played on artists’ special projects.
JW: So it was time?
GB: Yes. I wanted to get something going that was steadier and would give me a little more artistic control. I liked the idea of playing with Julian, even though he had formed his own band. I also love playing with drummer Antonio Sanchez, who was on my Quartet Live CD from 2007, and bassist Scott Colley. So this is something of an all-star group.
JW: Do you plan to tour extensively?
GB: Yes but not constantly. After the Blue Note run this week, we plan to play two weeks in Europe, record an album and then take the month of July to play all the European festivals.
JW: Why do you tour so often in Europe?
GB: Audiences there are more consistent. They’re accustomed to hearing live jazz, and more venues there host jazz concerts and festivals. In the summer, virtually every town in Europe has its own jazz festival. It’s quite remarkable.
JW: What kind of material will you be playing?
GB: Our repertoire will consist of about a dozen new songs. We’ve rehearsed a bit already and played two gigs over the summer at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel. There are new songs by Julian; pianist Vadim Neselovskyi, who was in my last band; a tune from Antonio Sanchez; Chick sent me a tune; we’re doing Light Blue by Thelonious Monk, and a song by pianist Makoto Ozone.
JW: How’s the sound?
GB: We won’t be breaking any new ground in terms of composition or style. But the material is modern, tuneful and lyrical. What’s different are the seasoned players and how we play off each other.
JW: Are you excited?
GB: Very. After going through this period of guesting on other musicians’ projects and albums, this feels more comfortable. I was beginning to miss my own thing.
JW: What do you mean?
GB: As the leader, I get to pick the instrumentation and the players rather than leaders choosing me. I also get to pick the tunes. When I played with Chick, we both chose the tunes, but we tended to choose from his originals. They’re great, of course, but I didn’t have a lot of input. My own group gives me more freedom.
JW: Tell me about Julian, who recorded with you in 2003 and 2004.
GB: Julian is definitely a star. I’ve known him since he was 12. He’s 21 years old now. I first saw him on a Grammy telecast years ago, and he soloed all of 20 seconds. But I knew immediately that this kid was really playing. Then a few years ago I was a presenter at the annual TED conference, which features speakers from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. I asked Julian to join me, and we performed a couple of tunes together.
JW: How did he do?
GB: He so impressed me during those performances that I invited him to do gigs with me. He made his first record with me, Generations , at age 15. Next Generation was recorded a year later. Julian also is a mature composure, which is unusual for a young musician. From that point on we started touring together.
JW: What did he do about high school and college?
GB: He didn’t go to regular high school. His parents recognized his early talent and provided him with tutors. He managed to finish high school and went on to Berklee. As a player, he's extremely melodic and his sound is well shaped, with tremendous facility on the guitar
JW: What sets him apart?
GB: Julian has found a niche for himself that’s all his own. He brings together an interesting mix of country, jazz and folk. He put off recording as a leader, even though he had record companies chasing after him. Then in 2008 he recorded Sounding Point, which was nominated for a Grammy last year. I think you’re going to enjoy him this week at the Blue Note.
JazzWax clip: Here's Julian Lage backstage at this year's Montreux Jazz Festival...