A popular phrase in years past was “Life Begins at 60,” but Gary Burton - as he has done so often throughout his career - is re-writing the book on retirement. Having turned 70 in January, an age when most artists begin to solely look back, Burton forges ahead with his new Mack Avenue Records album, Guided Tour (available August 6, 2013), which solidifies the reputation of his next great band, The New Gary Burton Quartet. In addition, Burton has literally written the book on his life, saving those backward glances for his upcoming autobiography, LEARNING TO LISTEN: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton (available September 3, 2013 on Berklee press).
Burton’s stature as the former Executive Vice President at the famed Berklee College of Music caps a three-decade life in jazz education, which coincided with his already busy career as a performer and recording artist. Known for reintroducing and expanding the technique of four-mallet playing while crafting one of the jazz world’s signature sounds, he is also celebrating the 40th anniversary of his ongoing collaboration with pianist Chick Corea (winning yet another GRAMMY® Award in 2013 – his seventh overall – for their most recent project, Hot House). And having established the first online courses for Berklee, Burton has recently expanded his web presence to create a course in improvisation for Coursera (the massive online education platform), which, as of two months before its launch, had already enrolled 25,000 students.
On Guided Tour, jazz’s most innovative and accomplished vibraphonist proves that The New Gary Burton Quartet - which he premiered last summer on his Mack Avenue debut,Common Ground - was no one-trick pony. Featuring the prodigal guitar genius Julian Lage as well as two renowned veterans, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez, Guided Tour provides a road map to one of the most dynamic bands on the scene today.
Apart from their own playing, many of jazz’s greatest figures – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis – are also known for the handful of indisputably great bands they led throughout their careers. Like them, Burton has assembled a few such Olympian groups of his own: his first quartet, which pioneered the fusion of jazz and rock in 1967; his quintet with Pat Metheny in the 1970s; and now this band, which achieves a rare synergy.
“It’s the difference between playing with some excellent musicians, and finding a group chemistry that goes beyond that – a coming together of ‘sympatico’ creative minds,” says Burton. “In my five decades of playing in various bands, mostly my own groups, I have only experienced this a handful of times; if even one player is not an equal part of the combination, it doesn’t achieve that magical state. But from the first recording of this band, everything just clicked perfectly.”
If that’s how this band started out, you can imagine how they sound now, with a year’s growth and a world tour on their resume. “I’m happy to report that our second album is every bit as strong a statement of group identity as before,” Burton affirms. “If anything, we have evolved as an ensemble – which is the dream of every band leader.”
Burton sought out original material from all the group’s members on Guided Tour (as he did with Common Ground), illuminating their wide range of cross-cultural musical styles. “They outdid themselves this time,” he says. “And, of course, the superb musicianship, but with players like these, that’s a given.” Add in a tour guide like Burton, and the path is clear, on an album likely to rank among the year’s best.
As he recounts in the upcoming autobiography, LEARNING TO LISTEN, Burton was already a steadily working musician in rural Indiana in his high school years, before heading for Nashville, recording the very first jazz-and-country album (with guitarist Hank Garland), and scoring a major-label record contract-all before entering the Berklee College of Music at the age of 17, in 1960. LEARNING TO LISTEN provides great insight into his music-making process. He tells stories about living in Nashville and working alongside Chet Atkins and guitarist Hank Garland; of seeing Jimi Hendrix’s first New York City performance; collaborating with Eric Clapton and members of the Eagles; touring and recording extensively with the iconic Tango musician Astor Piazzola and his ensemble; and even garnering a GRAMMY® nomination for Best Classical Album with his recording Virtuosi. Burton also writes in great detail about how he learned and then refined his skill with improvisation, and how he creates music in the moment.
He also is one of the few openly gay men in jazz, a genre of music that has long been identified with a particularly masculine reputation. He first revealed this on the NPR show “Fresh Air,” after decades of keeping the secret not only from those around him but also from himself.
LEARNING TO LISTEN is at its heart the very human story of Burton coming to terms with who he is as a person, struggling to find a balance between his personal, creative and professional lives, and living his life honestly and without regret.
“Life is a process of getting to know oneself, and this is especially true for artists, who struggle to find answers to so many questions,” Burton writes in his memoir. “In the case of musicians, we want to turn those answers into song through our creative processes. And that requires learning who you are and discovering how to have a kind of dialogue with the unconscious self…. Looking back, it’s hard to believe this gay, white, Hoosier farm kid managed to find his way in the macho, cosmopolitan world of Jazz.”
At 70, having already led one of the most remarkable careers in music history, Gary Burton seems to be just warming up, with a landmark year in 2013.