Although we live during a time when overstatemust runs rampant, most of us have learned to ignore it; as a result, the grand claim doesn't really have much effect. Few people actually believe that they're eating "The World's Best Hot Dog" (in the seventh city in a row) or that they've miraculously encountered the "Greatest Selection in the Universe" while out shopping. No, the real damage of the Age of Hyperbole is that it diminishes the value of the truly extraordinary; as a result, most of us react with practiced cynicism even to claims that deserve a closer look.
So when I say that Gary Burton encompasses the entire history of his instrument, your first reaction is to nod numbly, or roll your eyes, while gauging that statement against all the similar raves you've read about other musicians. Yet in this case there's no hyperbole involved, owing to the youth of his instrument and the remarkable longevity of its major practitioners. Gary Burton, only in his 50s, stands exactly one degree of separation from all the giants of the jazz vibraphone. He's known every one of them; more important, he nods to each of their contributions in his own work, which revels in a command of the instrument that would (and did) impress his illustrious forbears.
The vibraphone itself is only a generation older than Burton, which has a direct impact on this album. "This is more or less the 75th anniversary of the vibes' invention and I realized that this could be the right time to recognize the contributions Of some of my favorite players," he says, referring to Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, and Cal Tjader. (The first two pioneered mallet jazz; Jackson gave it the lyrical phrasing of a horn, achieving the greatest transformation in the instrument's history, and Tjader made it a staple of both the "cool school" and Latin jazz in the 1950s).
We have to forgive Burton his blurry evocation of the vibes' platinum anniversary, because in truth, no one can pinpoint the instrument's precise date of birth. The vibraphone appears to have arrived around 1925; at least, that's when the word began appearing in print to describe one of various attempts to electrify a xylophone. The instrument got its name from the vibrato produced by small blades rotating above each of its resonating tubes. These blades, which are driven by on electric motor, alter the air column within each tube to crease the tiny oscillations that constitute vibrato a fact that fundamentally separates the vibes from most other electric instruments. Rather than merely pump up the volume, electricity here creates an entirely new instrument, with an expressive ability (vibrato) unavailable to its acoustic predecessors. (The classic vibraphone features no electronic amplification at all; this explains why you usually see microphones in front of it to pick up the sound.)
It took a few more years before such additions as the damper pedal, which allows the notes to ring longer, enabling the instrument to handle the demands of jazz. And by then (1930), the vibraphone had its first avatar in Lionel Hampton.
Hampton started as a drummer and, according to legend, sort of stumbled into his place in jazz history. One story has him spotting a vibraphone in a recording studio and just "fooling around" with it; Hampton later explained that he was asked to record on the instrument by none other than Louis Armstrong. In any case, he recorded the first vibes solo in 1930; by 1935 he had achieved enough proficiency to join Benny Goodman, who expanded his famous trio to showcase Hampton's gloriously heated solos.
Hampton himself would have a direct influence on Gary Burton, in the late '50s: "Growing up in southern Indiana, there wasn't much opportunity to meet other vibes players let alone a 'name' hut when I was 14, my father noticed that Hampton's band was playing a dance in nearby Evansville." Burton had already put in seven years studying the vibes; now he was trying to teach himself jazz, and his father decided they should meet Hampton in person. "We took a chance and showed spin mid-afternoon, and the band was doing their sound-check. Dad went up and talked to Hamp, and then Hamp beckoned mu on stage. He gave me his mallets and said, 'Play something'; then he signaled the rhythm section to join in, and it turned into a little jam session. He seemed to like it, and he had me play a couple more tunes; he was excited and encouraging, and I came away from the experience feeling like I must be on the right track. Years later, I asked him if he remembered that occasion, and he didn't. But I never forgot it."
For this tribute, Burton chose Hampton's two wildly dissimilar signature tunes. Hamp recorded "Midnight Sun," known for its intoxicating chromaticism and voluptuous Johnny Mercer lyrics, in 1947, and it soon became his biggest hit; Burton downplays the chromaticism to create a more modern, less sentimental brand of romance. Modernism also comes to "Flying Home," the flag-waving, shake-'em-by-the-throat potboiler Hampton used as a finale or encore. Makoto Ozone's arrangement, which places the cheery melody in a bitonal setting, sends Burton on an updated version of the Hamp's own joyride solos. His co-pilots constitute a crackerjack rhythm suction of New York's finest: pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash.
Hampton's contemporary, Red Norvo, began his career on xylophone and marimba and didn't adopt the vibraphone until 1943. Today, that seems amazing. Because it lacks vibrato and sustain, the xylophone emphasizes the instrument's place in the percussion family: one has to play drum rolls on a single tone bar just to make the note ring out. But Norvo's brilliant technique, which featured the use of two mallets in each hand, allowed him to transcend the xylophone's limitations for ten years, starting with several small-group records in 1933. Burton reprises two of them - the roustabout "Hole in the Wall" and the still mesmerizing "Dance of the Octopus" on xylophone and marimba, with Ozone playing a piano transcription of the original accompanylng pants. "Red told me he stopped using four mallets in the '40s because the two-mallet style had become the standard," Burton recalls. "After hearing me play with four mallets decades later, he said he was sorry he'd given it up, but felt it was too late to switch back." (Norvo died in 1999, at the age of 91.
Burton first met Norvo in '63 and says "it was fascinating to finally see his light touch in person. But not until 1969 - when Burton had already achieved fame (and notoriety) in leading one of the first bands to combine jazz with electric rock - did they really get to know each other. "My group did a tour Of Europe, with Red along as a guest soloist. He would play a short set, then we'd do our set, after which we used two vibraphones for a final number. The piece we usually played was the swing classic 'Indiana,' so I decided to include it in this collection." But Norvo, despite his success as a Swing-Era bandleader, hadn't stood still; by the early '50s he was leading a rather avant-garde trio starring guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus, which embraced the emergent "cool" sounds exemplified by Miles Davis's nonet, Borrowing from the nonet's repertoire, Norvo's trio played "Move" and "Godchild," which Burton performs here. To capture the sound of that trio, Burton again features McBride, along with Russell Malone, whose knowledge of past jazz styles rivals his own sure place on the modern scene.
For all their contributions to the vibraphone, Hampton and Norvo still trail Mill Jackson in importance. Even Burton, despite his own several innovations to vibraphone technique (including the use of multiple mallets to play unaccompanied, and his ability to bend notes on the instrument) freely admits that Jackson's one innovation trumps them all. A vocalist in high school, Jackson made the vibes sing: he transformed the vibes from a sometimes cartoonish beast into a lyrically communicative star of bebop and modern jazz. He did this by slowing the vibrato and reducing the percussive attack used by his predecessors; Jackson's flowing, relaxed style owed more to horn players and pianists than to the handful of previous mallet men. And from his vantage point fronting the famed Modern Jazz Quartet, he presented bluesy, elegantly balanced solos that mark him among the great improvisers on any instrument.
"Milt was the leading voice by the '50s, and I'd say that 60 percent of the vibraphone records I came across featured Milt," Burton points out. "We didn't really get acquainted till the '90s, when we briefly toured together. As with Red, we teamed up for some two-vibes numbers; we usually played Milt's signature, 'Bags' Groove,' us I included it here." Miller, McBride, and Nash once again constitute the rhythm Suction for this tune and "Django," the MJQ classic that framed the gamut of emotions Jackson brought to the vibes, from the introspective pleadings of the opening theme to the blues swagger of the solo section. With Jackson's death in 1999, the song - written as a threnody for guitarist Django Reinhardt - has also becomes memorial to the man who made it his own.
Of the four men honored on this album, Burton knew Cal Tjader the least well (they only met twice), but shares with him an unbreakable bond. In 1953, after playing drums and bongos (and occasionally vibes) with Dave Brubuck, Tjader became the regular vibist in the quintet led by George Shearing - a spot that Burton himself would occupy a decade later. In Shearing's band, Tjader got his first strong dose of Latin jazz, which became his artistic passion until his death in 1983, just short of his 57th birthday. In recent years, Burton has forged his own South American connection by playing the music of the Argentine "new tango" composer Astor Piazzolla.
"Cal built a large following among Latin audiences and had several hit records," Burton says, "His repertoire included established Latin songs, but he also played many jazz standards in Latin style, and featured a combination of both jazz and Latin musicians in his groups. So for this CD, I chose two pieces: 'Afro Blue,' the Latin-jazz classic by Mongo Santamaria (which Tjader recorded in 1964), and 'Joao,' composed for Cal by Clare Fischer, his frequent collaborator. Aed I chose the standard ballad 'Body and Soul,' but did it as a slow rhumba a treatment Cal often used for standards." In order to do justice to this material, Burton felt he needed a rhythm section firmly rooted in the Latin tradition, us he turned to the sparkling Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, who assembled the conjunto for Cal, with bassist John Patitucci and percussionists Horacio Hernandez and Luisito Quintero.
"It's interesting to note that each of these early players came to the vibraphone from another instruments," notes Burton, "and their playing reveals their past influences. Hamp's bright, percussive sound and style reflect his drumming roots. Red's light, facile touch was indicative of his xylophone technique; Milt's legato style reveals his desire to make the vibes sound like a jazz vocalist; Cal's early experience with bongos and Latin jazz speaks for itself. And like Cal, they each chose songs and settings that further expressed their musical identities. Hamp has preferred big bands, hot and fast; Red stuck to drumless trios playing quite sophisticated arrangements. And Milt liked the languid flow of blues and ballads, and spent most of his career in one of the coolest sounding ensembles in history."
The one most obvious name missing from this list, of course, is that of Gary Burton, who did not come to the vibes from another instrument. Rather, he comes from all of these vibraphonists, and he has built on their work to craft a unique approach to the instrument that acknowledges all of them - and sounds like none of them. "Of all my recordings, this may he the most satisfying," he muses. "It certainly has felt close to home. These were the players I admired and learned from, and eventually got to know. You might say that making this disc was like seeing my life pass before my eyes.
Or, for the rest of us, like watching the entire history of his instrument on parade.
NEIL TESSER, author, The Playboy Guide To Jazz, www.WordsOnMusic.com