In school bands the vibraphone is taught as a percussion instrument, which it certainly is to an extent as a mallet-based instrument. Yet when you listen to the sounds it produces, it is hard not to classify it closer to the piano or guitar in terms of harmonic presence.
In the 1960’s two major forces emerged on the instrument – Bobby Hutcherson and Gary Burton – who took up the mantle from Milt Jackson and Lionel Hampton and modernized the instrument. While Hutcherson focused on taking the sound and style of the instrument into the post-bop mainstream, Burton innovated a four-mallet style that produced a tremendously dense self-accompanying presence. For the past four decades Burton has worked in large ensembles, duets, and solo … but has always returned to a quartet format with guitar, bass and drums. It seems to be a comfortable setting, so I am always certain that the results will be pleasing.
Summary: Gary Burton, aside from being a master instrumentalist and great composer, is also one of the great teachers in modern music. He was in residence at Boston’s Berklee School of Music for a very long time until he recently retired, and brought his mentoring of great young musicians to his group recordings as well. He grabbed a young Pat Metheny for his group and also played with Larry Coryell, John Scofield, and Mick Goodrick in their formative years. He is one of the great ‘elder statesmen’ of the music in the spirit of Art Blakey … and for this recording he brings in 23-year old Julian Lage along with veteran drummer Antonio Sanchez (who has played with Burton in recent years as well as the Pat Metheny Group) and bassist Scott Colley.
The album consists of ten tracks: one each from Burton and Colley, two each from Lage and Sanchez, and two from former Burton band-mate Vadim Neselovskyi. There is also a classic track from Keith Jarrett as well as the standard My Funny Valentine. Sonically the vibraphone is the perfect foil in a group like this, and a guitar is much better suited to the pairing than a piano. There is loads of harmonic room for everyone to open up and be heard without feeling like they are tripping over one another.
The songs are generally approached in a straight-forward manner, with each instrument assuming a traditional role. I mention this as Burton has frequently collaborated with Steve Swallow, who is the most melodic bassist I have ever heard and tends to turn arrangements upside down. Colley provides firm support, and is constantly communicating with Sanchez and forming a solid foundation for the songs and solos.
Another great thing about the legendary Burton is his lack of ego – he feels no need to lead all things or be the center of attention. That is a good thing, as guitar phenom Lage plays a huge role in shaping the recording. He plays with a strong rhythmic style that shows how much he has been influenced by music from jazz to rock to fusion and beyond. His composition Etude shows his multi-dimensional style as he leads the group through a syncopated melodic line with shifting harmonic structure and leads into complex solo efforts.
Perhaps it is the legacy of having started in a quartet of equals with Coryell and Swallow, but in every great Burton group it feels like no one is left on the sidelines. Everyone contributes music, everyone has solo space, and everyone is fully engaged throughout the recording. This is a recording you will enjoy on first listen, but is also one that just gets better and better with repeated listens.
Choice Track (and why): “Common Ground” – the title track might not have the best melody (that goes to “Late Night Sunrise”), or the most interesting structure (“Etude”), or the most evocative emotional appeal (either “In Your Quiet Place” or “My Funny Valentine”). But you know what it DOES have? A great structure to showcase all of the great musicians both as individuals and as a group. It is exciting and rewarding to listen to them burn on this track!
You Might Love This If: If you have ever enjoyed a Gary Burton recording, you will love this. If the sound of a guitar-vibraphone pairing intrigues you, you won’t be disappointed. Everyone else should check out the samples and see if you like what you hear!
Where to Buy: iTunes Music Store – $9.99
Here is a video of the thoughts of the band members creating this recording: