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Gary Burton: A New Quartet, A Familiar Sound

Gary Burton.
Courtesy of the artist
Gary Burton.

Gary Burton has always counted on collaborators to pull him in various directions — not because the vibraphonist doesn't have his own preferences, but for the variety. Burton also likes a tight-knit working band, and he's got one in his new quartet, which is touring this summer and fall. Drummer Antonio Sanchez works hand in glove with bassist Scott Colley; they'd already teamed up in the drummer's band.

By using four mallets on vibes instead of two, Burton can lay down bittersweet chords like a piano romantic. But those extra tentacles also let him do fast octopus dances in complex rhythm, a kind of throwback to '70s jazz-rock. Burton was there at the dawn of jazz fusion, and that influence still lurks under the surface.

The heart of this quartet is the flinty interplay between contrasting metallic voices: Burton's ringing-aluminum vibraphone bars versus onetime protégé Julian Lage's steel-string guitar. His round hollow-body tone is not so fusion-y, but the tunes the players bring in may involve sudden wrinkles, knotted lines and shifting rhythms, as in fusion. Deep in Lage's tune, "Banksy," one episode quickly gives way to the next or jumps back to the last — maybe to evoke the graffiti artist for which it's named, staying one foot ahead of the law.

For Gary Burton, every new beginning confirms some eternal constants. In a way, he's not so far from where he started, blending with big-toned country guitarists 50 years ago. "Common Ground" draws other connections to his past; the one lyrical tune Burton wrote echoes '60s collaborator Carla Bley, and the quartet revives a poppy Keith Jarrett song Burton played with him way back when. One reason some things don't change much is that they wear well as they are. Update only as needed.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.