Gary Burton has announced he is retiring and that this is his farewell tour. Born in 1943, he’s been touring for nearly six decades and made his recording debut in 1960 at the age of 17. Not that anyone would think that he’s getting old hearing him play, seeing his tall frame bent over the vibraphone, chuckling at his good natured commentary between the tunes. Burton has chosen to carry out his retirement tour with his long-term musical partner MakotoOzone. They’ve known and played with each other for 34 years. The duo played in front of a full house at the Blues Alley in Georgetown for two nights, with two shows each night in the beginning of March.
Gary Burton is possibly the most accomplished vibes player in the history of jazz (the only possible competition would come from his seniors, Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson). He has recorded more than 60 albums as a leader and received about half a dozen Grammies – a rare feat for a jazz artist. He pioneered the four-mallet technique on the vibraphone, which has since then been emulated by many musicians. One of the hallmarks of his career has been collaboration with many leading innovators on the jazz scene, including ChickCorea. His collaboration with Makoto Ozone is a good example of this collaboration.
The concert started with a Chick Corea composition honoring the pioneering bebop pianist Bud Powell. This was an icebreaker that allowed the audience to get into a full jazz swing, with Ozone providing a solid rhythm occasionally breaking into stride piano. The early part of the concert was overall defined by more straight jazz than one would often hear from Burton. The evening would grow more varied as it progressed. The Burton-Ozone sound is quite different from that of the more famous Burton-Corea duo. Ozone uses his left hand to a rhythmic effect and plays often thick chords on the right. He is a superb pianist, but his style is somewhat heavier than that of Corea’s. In many ways, it fits well in this duo format where there is no bass or drums to provide the base. Neither is needed or missed, although one could imagine an innovative double bass player fitting into the format.
One of the highlights of the evening was ‘Remembering Tano’, a piece composed by Burton for the legendary Argentinian composer, leader and accordionist Astor Piazzolla, with whom Burton recorded. Naturally, the piece is in a tango format, oozing with dark passion and tension amidst complex rhythms, while the bridge seamlessly shifts into a brighter major key only to soon return to the original melancholy mood. It provided an excellent opportunity for Ozone to dwell in the drama, which seems to come naturally to him.
In 2002, the gentlemen recorded an album, ‘Virtuosi’, with arrangements of classical pieces by Brahms, Gershwin, Ravel, Scarlatti and others. At the concert, they explained how they had sat together in a café in Phoenix, Arizona, coming up with the idea. Interestingly, the album would go on to receive a Grammy nomination in classical music category. This night they played the Prelude from Ravel’s ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin’, providing one of the most beautiful moments of the show.
Back to jazz history, ‘Opus F’ by Benny Goodman followed. The up-tempo tune displayed some amazing fast soloing by Burton and gave Ozone another opportunity at stride piano. A fun interlude in the varied program.
Several years ago, Gary Burton was recording an album and had requested Makoto Ozone to write two original pieces for it. As Ozone recalled it, he had made very little progress and not really gotten into the task because of other things to do. One Sunday Gary called him over to his house. Makoto arrived and was promptly closed off into the basement alone with a piano and kept there until the two pieces were done. We heard one of them at the concert. The composer had written much space for piano in it and it displayed clearly his classical background. Makoto Ozone still today performs as a classical music soloist with symphony orchestras in Japan and the USA.
After the concert I spotted Gary Burton chatting with some patrons and I joined them. I told him that I had first seen him in Helsinki sometime in the 1970s. Gary’s reaction: “Oh, then we go way back!” I remember the concert quite well and mentioned that Eberhard Weber had been part of the group. Gary acknowledged that he had played a lot with the German bassist and they were still in touch. Unfortunately, Eberhard can’t play anymore as he’s had a stroke.
I am very glad that I was able to catch Gary Burton on one of his last gigs. I understand his wish to quit touring, which must be very hard work – and it’s always good to quit while you’re still winning – but I hope that we will still hear from this master also in the future.