Wednesday, October 27, 2004


I should really be posting tracks from an album called A Genuine Tong Funeral today, as it's the best link I know of between Carla Bley (see yesterday's post re: Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports) and eclectic vibraphonist Gary Burton (who I'm getting to today). It's a wordless opera, composed by Carla for Burton and his combo, and released in 1968. While basically good in a Bley way (slightly goofy, theatrical, lots of trumpet) it's not the sort of thing that grabs you on first listen, so I'm going to skip it and go straight to some earlier albums by Gary Burton.

I first got interested in Burton because Larry Coryell (amazing jazz/rock guitarist who I've written about a bunch of times) played in Gary's combo during the late 60's prior to his solo debut, Lady Coryell, which came out in 1969. Just to quickly recap for the umpteenth time, Larry Coryell is a contender for the title of Person Who Invented Fusion Before Miles Davis Invented Fusion, and a few of Larry's solo albums (Lady Coryell, Coryell and The Real Great Escape) are among my favorite jazz recordings, though my favorite parts are much more accurately described as jazz-influenced rock. I often wish that Larry's early ideas about fusion (basically sans-funk, sans-diddle) had prevailed, but as far as I know, they didn't, at least not within jazz circles.

Larry and Gary Burton recorded four albums together between 1967 and 1968. Last I checked, these were all finally kind of, sort of in print on CD, though in some cases it helps if you live in Japan. You know, for years I've been asking jazz fans what they'd recommend to me, given my plebian tastes, and I pretty much always get the same names: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, assorted fusion types who I never end up liking, and some of the noisier people like Peter Brotzmann, John Zorn, etc. I don't think anyone ever mentioned the Gary Burton Quartet, and I kind of wonder why. Some sort of jazz conspiracy? Now that I've heard the albums, it seems like a complete no brainer. They were out of print and not on CD for a long time, so maybe that's the reason, but vinyl copies aren't hard to find or expensive (that's a hint for those of you who own turntables).

Before I get to the Gary Burton Quartet, though, I'm going to backtrack a little. Right before he hired Larry Coryell, Gary Burton was trying out fusion of another kind: jazz plus country. In 1966 or 1967 he hooked up with a bunch of Nashville session players and recorded an album called Tennessee Firebird. Do I have to mention that it's not in print on CD in the US? Grrrr. [Note: I'm still not clear on whether this is a '66 or '67 release. My vinyl album says '67, but most -- not all -- other sources say '66. Anyone know for sure?]

Well received at the time, it holds up pretty nicely in 2004. It's Burton's group, so the jazz influence is dominant over the country, but things get especially interesting whenever the tempo speeds up. Here's the great, banjo-fueled title track Tennessee Firebird. There are two Bob Dylan songs that are kind of snoozy...most any time a jazz guy covers a rock/folk song such that the sax plays the melody over the original chords, I fall asleep. So let's skip that. One of my favorite tracks is probably an afterthought. It's called Beauty Contest, and it's only a minute or so long, and probably included solely for atmosphere, but it's pretty dreamy. I just wish it went on for a few more minutes. I've included the short epilogue that follows that track and ends the album. Finally, here's a great bluesy song with a lot of harmonica called Walter L. It's going to return tomorrow in different form.

[This post written in a huge hurry, so any corrections are especially welcomed!]

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