Master vibraphonist and renowned jazz educator Gary Burton has entered a new phase in his long and illustrious career. Now retired from the Berklee College of Music (where he taught for 33-years and last held the title of Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer) and newly relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Burton has formed his first working band in seven years and is rededicating himself to hitting the road once again. Says the five-time Grammy winner, "I was retiring from Berklee and thinking, ‘What do I want to change in my life now, besides moving to Florida?’ And finally I decided that it was time to organize a band again. Since 1997, I had just been playing duet concerts with either Makoto [Ozone] or Chick [Corea]. But things conspired to make this band happen."
Burton’s latest group of talented young discoveries—26-year-old pianist Vadim Neselovskyi, 21-year-old bassist Luques Curtis, 21-year-old drummer James E. Williams and 17-year-old guitar sensation Julian Lage (who was showcased on last year’s Generations)—forges a fresh, swinging chemistry on his new Concord Records CD, Next Generation. And the 62-year-old bandleader couldn’t be more thrilled about how the group has gelled so quickly. "When I was first putting the band together I saw it as a kind of a showcase for me and Julian," says Burton. "But as we all began playing together, it started to evolve and really click. When you assemble a group of musicians from scratch, you never know how well it’s going to mesh. I can count only four or five times in my career where a newly formed band has meshed so quickly—first with Larry Coryell, Roy Haynes and Steve Swallow, then with Pat Metheny, Mick Goodrick and Bob Moses, and then with Makoto Ozone on piano and Tommy Smith on tenor sax. This ‘Next Generation’ band has all the earmarks of being one that I’m going to love working with."
Burton has high praise for all his new protégés. He calls pianist Vadim, for example, "an extremely creative and a wonderful composer...an exciting, original kind of player." And, he’s still overjoyed about working with budding guitar star Lage. "Julian just turned 17, but when you talk to him you forget his age. You think he’s 30 because he’s very mature and he looks older than his years. So when he says something about having just gotten his drivers license or something, you’re taken aback and you suddenly realize just how young this guy is."
Lage is the most recent guitar discovery that Burton has made since forming his first band in 1967. Indeed, over the past 40-years he has exhibited a kind of sixth sense for finding the next new guitar stars, with such discoveries as Larry Coryell, Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. "The fact is, I don’t understand the guitar at all," says Burton. "I watch guitarists playing and I can’t even figure out how their brains think. The keyboard I understand absolutely, because mine is a keyboard instrument. But I try and picture the guitarist’s thought process and my mind boggles."
Burton’s ongoing relationship with the guitar started in 1961 with the great Nashville session player Hank Garland. "I was 17 at the time," Burton recalls, "and word had gotten to me up in Indiana that this guitarist in Nashville was looking for a vibes player. So I went down with (saxophonist) Boots Randolph, who was living in Indiana at the time and had recommended me to Hank. I played a couple of tunes with him one afternoon and based on that he said, ‘Why don’t you come down to Nashville for the summer? We’ll play this club on weekends and we’ll make this record.’ It all sounded good to me, so I loaded up my car the day after graduation and drove down to Nashville." (That Nashville session resulted in Garland’s acclaimed Jazz Winds From a New Direction on Columbia Records).
Burton subsequently returned to school for two years before completing a one-year stint with pianist George Shearing, followed by three years with sax great Stan Getz. When it came time to form his own band in 1967, he ran into guitarist Larry Coryell. "We met at a jam session at a rehearsal studio in New York," Burton recalls. "I already had my first gigs booked as a trio using the Bill Evans’ rhythm section, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Joe Hunt on drums. So I added Larry to the group and that started it for me and guitar, and I just stuck with it." (Their collaboration yielded such seminal fusion recordings as Lofty Fake Anagram and Duster).
Burton sought out guitar phenom Lage after catching a glimpse of him on a 1998 GRAMMY® Awards telecast. "He was only 11 or 12-years old at the time and was part of a little segment they broadcast which was a tribute to music education. Each one of the four or five kids played for about 20 seconds as they sort of segued from a classical piece to a jazz piece to whatever. And in just the 20 seconds or so that he played, Julian looked like the real thing. So I called up the GRAMMY folks and got his phone number. It turns out he lives nearby a conference where I was giving a presentation. So I called Julian and asked him if he would want to do it with me, and he did. Herbie Hancock was there and sat in with us as well, and Julian did a terrific job, even better than I had anticipated."
Following that initial encounter, Burton kept in touch with young Lage and would later invite him to play on a cruise to London aboard the QE-II. "His parents came with him, since he was only 12 or 13 at the time. And every year after that we would find a low-key gig here and there that we could do. And he’s just developed into this terrific player, as well as a good composer."
Last year, Burton documented the guitar prodigy on the acclaimed CD, Generations. Lage takes it up a notch on Next Generation. "His playing has developed at a really frantic pace, and he’s really matured as a person," says Burton. "Julian’s got a terrific head on his shoulders. He’s a very smart, savvy kid with a great personality. People just warm up to him immediately. So I thought the time was right for us to play together in a band. Truth is that I’m as excited about the rest of the band as I am about Julian."
Lage’s band mates in Burton’s new outfit are the gifted pianist-composer-arranger Vadim Neselovskyi, bassist and Berklee grad Luques Curtis and drummer (and current Berklee student) James E. Williams. "I have to laugh because if you take any three of them and add their ages, it still doesn’t equal mine," says Burton. "I was always 20-years younger than everybody else in every band I played in. And, then the tables reversed and now I’m the older guy in everything I get into."
Pianist Neselovskyi, who hails from the Ukraine, began studying classical music at an early age. At age 17, his family moved to Germany, where he got involved in the German jazz scene. He later relocated to the United States to study at Berklee and graduated last year. Neselovskyi wrote two pieces for Next Generation—the suite-like opener "Prelude For Vibes" and the brisk, chops-busting romp "Get Up And Go." He also contributes a jazzy arrangement of the fourth movement of Samuel Barber’s "Piano Sonata" (titled here "Fuga"). Burton says of Vadim’s pieces: "They’re like little works rather than just tunes. They have different movements to them—complex chord changes and unusual harmonic progressions that go through various time changes and sections—which is a really good fit for my kind of music. This is the kind of thing I’ve always liked. It also relates to the composers I’ve worked with in the past. For instance, Chick tends to write more elaborate music more frequently and not just simple tunes. I’ve always liked that kind of thing, and Vadim is definitely in that tradition."
The rhythm section of bassist Curtis (from Hartford, Connecticut) and drummer Williams (who hails from Georgia but grew up in Monterey, California) had been performing in tandem around the Boston area when Burton found them. "They play really well together and had already put in a lot of gig time together," says Burton. "Plus, they are strong sight-readers, which makes them a perfect fit for my band."
Curtis contributes the tune "’Ques Sez," while Lages’ compositions include his bluesy "Walkin’ In Music" and his delicate "Clarity," performed as a duet with Burton as the album closer. Elsewhere on Next Generation, they turn in a buoyantly swinging rendition of the Rodgers & Hart standard "My Romance"(arranged and reharmonized by Neselovskyi) and cover a Mick Goodrick composition, "Summer Band Camp," which had previously appeared on the bandleader’s 1980 ECM album, Easy As Pie. Burton also resurrects an early Pat Metheny tune, "B & G," which originally appeared on the vibraphonist’s 1976 ECM album, Passengers. "I had almost forgotten about this piece," says Burton, "but then Pat came up to Boston last spring and we played a concert together, and he suggested that we play that song. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed it. And when it came time to put together a repertoire for this record, I figured that practically 30-years had passed so that maybe it would be okay to record this one again."
"It’s nice to make a change," says Burton upon entering this new phase in his career, marked by his retirement from Berklee, his move to Florida and the formation of his new quintet. "I moved to Florida and I love it down here. I’ve got a new band and I love that. Just everything that’s happening with the changes has been terrific." And you can hear his enthusiasm bubble over on Next Generation.