The Art of Improvisation

From SHUMEI Magazine, VOL. 225, Jan, Feb 2000

An Interview with Gary Burton

[On December 12, 1999, Gary Burton, one of the leading jazz musicians performing today, teamed up with Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone for a concert entitled "A Jazz Duet" in Shumei Hall at Shinji Shumeikai of America's National Headquarters in Pasadena, California. The concert was the fourth sponsored by the Shumei Arts Council of America and the third under the direction of David Spear, the concert series' Artistic Director. "A Jazz Duet" was Gary Burton's first performance since undergoing heart surgery, an ordeal that prevented him from making music for the longest period of his career. The following interview was conducted by George Bedell, SHUMEI Magazine's Associate Editor-in-chief, three days before the concert.]

SHUMEI MAGAZINE: Your concert at Shumei Hall primarily will feature you and Makoto Ozone in jazz duets. You are a major innovator of this format. How did you first become interested in jazz dialogues between musicians?

GARY BURTON: It all started in a typical jazz way. I was at a spontaneous jam session at the 1972 Munich Jazz Festival. At the time, the new thing for jazz musicians was to play solo at concerts. I had a solo record out. Chick Corea had a solo record out. Various others had solo records out. And one of the festival's themes was the art of the solo. There were five of us musicians, each playing solos. There was Joan Luc Ponte on violin, John McLaughlin on guitar, and others. After we all played our twenty-minute solo, the sponsor, who was not a musician, turned to us and asked, "Now, could you all play something together?" We told him, "No." Look at the instrumentation. It doesn't make up a band. You have piano, vibes, a trombone, a guitar, and a violin but no rhythm section. The group did not make a logical combination. But he was desperate to have some sort of climax to this concert. Finally, Chick Corea and I told him that we would play something together. Later that afternoon at the sound check, Chick quickly taught me one of his tunes and we ended the concert with it. It was a big hit with the audience.

Chick's record producer was there and said, "You guys have got to make a record of this." And we told him that no one would be interested in listening to piano and vibes without a rhythm section for a whole hour. It would never get airplay. It will never sell. But he kept calling or writing us saying that we really had to do this thing. He told us that he would take care of arranging for a studio and all the details. Finally, we said, "Okay," thinking that nothing would come of it. The record was called "Crystal Silence." It was the biggest seller of my career. It continues to sell well to this day.

That record started the whole trend of jazz duets. I continue to do between a dozen and twenty-five gigs a year with Chick as a duet. I also do a lot of duet playing with Makoto Ozone and we did a recording. I've also done duet recordings with a guitar player, Rob Towner, and a base player, Steve Swallow. Over the years, it has been a very good format for me. While not the usual thing that one thinks of when thinking of jazz, it has become a sub-set of the jazz world.

Jazz music is usually thought of as a communal experience. Think of music as speech. When you play alone, you are the main speaker communicating full-blast with the audience. If you are in a band, it is like being in a panel discussion. You have five people, each taking a turn in the spotlight, each giving their own perspective on the subject with the encouragement of other panel members. But in a duet, it is like two people having a conversation with one another. There is much more back and forth. It is like crossfire. It's like talking to someone that you know very well -- your best friend. You can leap ahead in the conversation, depending on how well you understand and respond to each other. There is an awful lot of interplay that duet playing encourages that you don't get in group settings where there are so many people to keep reacting to. It is not as focused.

For me it has been a great format. I have had some of my best musical experiences in duet settings over the years.

S.M: Does the duet format work better with someone you know well and with whom you have a strong professional relationship?

GARY BURTON: It is somewhat necessary. Sometimes I have tried playing duet with someone on the spur of the moment. Sometimes it works very well, even with someone that I have never played with before. It seems to click. Other times, it is difficult to find a footing with the other musician and both of us have to struggle to keep it going. I would never record with someone unless I knew we were compatible. You can admire someone from afar, listen to their records, and say, "Wow, I love that guy's playing." But then when you play with them, it just doesn't click. You just don't know until you've tried it live.

The concert at Shumei Hall is good for me because I haven't played with Makoto for about a year. He moved to Japan some time ago, so we play less often with each other. In this past year he has been touring with his own band almost full time and I have been working with Chick Corea almost full time. But Makoto has now moved back to New York and we decided to resume playing with each other again and this is the first concert that we have done in a while. We rehearsed a few days ago. It felt great.

Also, I have been out of the scene for the last two or three months because of heart surgery. So, I haven't been able to play until a few weeks ago. And so, this is my first concert since having to take this time off. It feels great for me to be back in action again. I am really looking forward to this date.

S.M: Your recent heart surgery kept you from performing. Other artists have undergone similar fallow periods in which for some reason or other they could not work. Although these times of silence may be depressing, sometimes when an artist returns to his work, he feels that something has been gained. Although it must have been painful, do you feel that this time away from music may have had any positive effects on you?

GARY BURTON: I will not know for sure until I see what happens Sunday. The experience is not complete until done in front of an audience. Up until then, I'm just loosening up my hands. I'm not really performing music. Even when Makoto and I rehearsed, we only went over the written parts to refresh our memory because we had not played together for a while. So I won't know for sure until Sunday.

But, I will say that in the past I have occasionally taken some time off, never three months before, but I had taken off a month now and then over the years. Afterwards, I've always noticed a freshness, something new in my playing. I heard a classical musician talk about this once when I was young. He talked about the mind continuing to process and evolve with the art even if you are not playing everyday. The processes that you have set in motion by being a musician all your life continues, the wheels keep turning in there, unconsciously. He said that he would come back after a period of time and find that he clearly played better and had insights into the pieces that he had not had before. A lot of the parts of the music experience don't come from practice. They come from a maturation process that goes on all through your life. I think getting away from it periodically lets you in fact come back with a fresh perspective. I've found that when I play every night for an extended period of time, which I used to do a lot when I was younger, that it would feel as if it was starting to get a little stale.

S.M: Was it the repetition that did this to you?

GARY BURTON: Well, I wouldn't play the exact same thing every night. But the experience would not be as fresh. It would be like anything that is done every day, whether it's going to Disneyland every day or whatever. Eventually it would become less dazzling. Although Disneyland would still be the same, your perception of it would be different if you went every day.

Fortunately, I play an instrument that allows me to be away from it for a while and not have a disaster on my hands when I get back. If you play trumpet, it would take you a few weeks of practicing and developing to get back in shape again. There is a minimum of that in the vibraphone. In fact, when it came my first time to pick up the mallets again after my operation, about eight weeks had gone by and I was wondering if it was going to feel clumsy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was getting around pretty much normal. The only difference was that my hands would get tired and sorer more quickly. They were not as tough as they would have been if I had been playing normally but the dexterity that I had before was pretty much the same. I said to myself, "It's a good thing I'm not a trumpet player."

S.M: You are noted for the innovations that you have made in jazz. Could innovation be in a way like taking a break from your work? Is innovation and experimentation a way for you to work against the monotony that might set in by doing the same thing over and over again?

GARY BURTON: I think there are two kinds of jazz musicians. There are musicians who have one particular style, sound, and identity that they have established for themselves. And they stay with it. If you look at their careers, you will see that they haven't deviated from it much. It's the things around them that change. A record company will put strings with them one time or another instrumentation with them the next but essentially they are doing the same thing that they have always done. For me, Wes Montgomery would be an example of that kind of musician. A wonderful player, but he always did the same thing -- did it exceedingly well, but he did not seem to be interested in trying different types or even different settings for his music.

The other kind of musician is a bit of a world traveler. A lot of jazz musicians are like that. I've put out tango records. I've done symphonic things. I've done different eras of jazz music from Benny Goodman tributes to more modern things. It doesn't mean that I will try absolutely anything. But when something grabs my interest and I can see myself being part of it, I will try to do it. I've had some of the most wonderful experiences of my life playing in other people's backyards. I'm just finishing my third record of tango music with Argentine musicians. I got into this because this leading tango musician, Astor Piazzolla asked me if I would be interested in doing something with him. I said that I would love to. I'd loved his music for years and always thought it would be fun to play, although I never imagined that it would ever happen because the musicians were in Argentina, where I did not go very often.

So, I'm clearly the type of jazz musician who likes those out of the ordinary experiences. And I bring pieces of it back to my own music. From Astor's music I have learned how to make melodies more expressive and dramatic, which is a quality of tango music that is very strong. I noticed that after a summer of touring with Piazzolla's musicians and playing his music that when I went back to playing my own I had more of a sense of how to make it say and do more. And I thought, "Ah, that's the tango coming through."

Every musical experience that I have had has stayed with me and has added to my musical identity.

S.M: As well as having a reputation for being an innovator, you are also a teacher who is known for his ability to spot new talent. Is it this same curiosity and restlessness that sparks your search for fresh ways of performing jazz that makes you search out new talent?

GARY BURTON: That's probably a good guess. I think there are several elements involved. One is to always be on the lookout for something new in my playing that will lead to new excitement in my music. But I also find young musicians inspiring to work with. I get a big charge out of watching them go through the rapid process of growth and discovery. It pushes me to keep open and flexible, and not get stuck in place. I would worry if I only played with a bunch of older guys all the time. I'd worry that we'd all get settled into the idea: This is what we are, this is what we do, take it or leave it. I know this is not fair because there are a lot of wonderful older musicians who sound fresh to this day. But I have a fear that I will get settled-in and stuck somewhere, particularly as I get older.

S.M: We all do.

GARY BURTON: You know. You've got it all sorted out. You've gotten this far. Then there is this inertia that makes you say, "It's easier to stay with what I already know than push ahead." A young musician does not have that burden. Young musicians and students keep you open to new things. I also find the young more willing to try new things. I got an inspiration from Stan Getz, whom I worked with in my early twenties. It was Stan's approach. He was a self-taught player, as were most jazz players of his generation and before. They did not have the chance to go to college or study formally. They learned by ear and by experience, by being in big bands with older musicians. Stan had this burning mission to keep up, to stay current, and it was a struggle for him. Chick Corea followed me into his band and we both still talk about the experience. Stan always wanted to play more complicated songs as opposed to easy ones. He would struggle until he got the hang of them. One of the reasons that he kept younger musicians, like Chick and me, in his band was that we forced him to keep his music fresh. He was my model and inspiration. When I started forming my own groups I was twenty-five and still in my youthful phase. But by the time I was forty I was still hiring twenty-five-year-olds.

People have credited me with this sense of being able to spot young people before they emerge. The truth is that when I would see them at Berklee, where I taught, they already would be of professional quality. It was just that they came from a foreign country or still weren't known to other musicians or American audiences yet. I would see them first. They would be fresh off the plane and I would hear them and think, "Gosh, what a great guitar player this guy is." Then, as soon as they finished school, I would see if they wanted to play in my band. I first heard Pat Metheny at a college jazz festival. He was nineteen. He came up to me and said that he was a big fan of my music, and asked to sit in with me. I told him that it was not going to work, but that I would stick around and listen to him play with his trio later that afternoon. He was really very good. He was living in Kansas City, where he grew up. I told him to go to New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, go anyplace that has a big music scene, where there are other players around that are at his level so that he could learn from them. About six months later he called me and said he decided to move to Boston because he did not know anyone in New York or Los Angeles. So, he came to Boston and before long I had the chance to add him to my band. Yet, I think anyone who heard him at that point would have said that this is a guy who is destined to be a big success and would have hired him. I just happened to be the first because he was in an educational setting where you can hear young players.

S.M: As you know, Shinji Shumeikai is a spiritual organization that believes all art is essentially sacred. We believe that art not only entertains but also can elevate people spiritually. When you are playing, do you get a sense that what you are doing might be spiritual in some sense?

GARY BURTON: I can tell you that is very much the case with being a performing musician, particularly with being an improvising one. I'm sure that a musician that is playing Mozart or Beethoven has a very emotional experience with their performance as well, even though they know beforehand what all the notes are going to be. Once all the music is in motion, the sounds are moving, and all the players are into it, the music comes alive even though it has been played before. But in jazz, you don't know what you are going to say next. I have always equated the jazz performers with standup comedians who wing it before the crowd. They have certain jokes and stories that they tell but they shape them and time them differently with each performance. Things pop into their mind as they react to the audience. Each performance has a high degree of spontaneity.

I can tell you that when you are having a good night, there are a number of really exhilarating moments in the course of the concert. It will not be on every piece and it will not be on the same piece every night. You'll say afterwards, "Wow! That piece tonight really happened! Wasn't that something! That third chorus just took off, just lifted." You know the experience that happens when you're having a conversation with someone and before they say something, you already know what they are going to say? That happens in a very elevated way when improvising music. It's almost spooky. It's beyond what you would think humans are capable of doing. I come away from those experiences in awe of our capability to communicate and process what we are experiencing. It reminds me while being in the day-to-day experience of thinking that it's all there is. It reminds me that there is a capability of functioning at a much higher level.

If you're lucky as a musician you might be able to experience this in a very tangible way. I'm sure that it happens in other endeavors besides art. I'm sure that when a scientist has some instinct as to why this chemical and that chemical are the right ones to try next that there is some element of instinct and creativity at work. My heart surgeon was described by my cardiologist as a "real artist." He said, "This guy is one of the two best surgeons in the country. You are in the hands of an artist." That is great. That is exactly the way I think of it. Here is a guy who not only knows the technique but also has an element of instinct and connectedness with what he is doing and how his mental powers coordinate. This puts him a notch above just mundane step-by-step thinking. There is an element of inspiration at work and in music it's very accessible. Roy Haynes, the drummer, was once asked if he were into any religion. There was a period when it seemed like every major jazz musician had picked a religion to belong to. One guy was chanting. Another one was doing this. Another that. And Roy said, "You know, I've never really felt a need for it. That's what the music does. That's what music provides me." When I heard that, I thought, "Yes, that is how I would answer that question." That's how music has worked for me, it has answered every question that I have come up against.

I'm a jaded musician. I've been around music all these years. And you'd think that I'd be immune to being impressed by it and yet when I see somebody who is really a master performer both technically and expressively, I am always awed. I ask myself how does it happen, how did we do that.

There is something about music that is so universal. It reaches all over the world to all people, to every society. There are many kinds of music and we will never agree on what kind of music we like but everyone responds to music. That is one of the great human experiences.

I got very interested in musical therapy six or eight years ago when we started a therapy program at our college. Music is a big form of therapy with Alzheimer's patients. One of the last things to leave the memory is music. Patients who no longer can talk, who no longer can recognize their family, can still clap their hands and sing the words to melodies they sang in their childhood. The musical abilities of the human brain are so deeply embedded in us that they are among the last things to finally go. This has made music a natural treatment for Alzheimer's patients. It keeps some kind of contact going with the outside world. Once again, it tells me what an amazing thing music is and what power it has to affect people, to get them to react. I am amazed that I can stand up in front of 400 people at this Sunday's concert, or several thousand on other occasions, and by flailing my sticks around get people entranced in the experience of music for an hour or two and have them go away feeling like they have been somewhere and experienced something. After forty years, that still amazes me.

It's a great job to have -- if you can make a go of it.

S.M: Mr. Burton, thank you very much.

[Editor's Note: The concert at Shumei Hall the Sunday after this interview took place was a great success and received a rave music review in the Los Angeles Times.]