4. Gary Burton at his best

Olhos de Gato. From Gary Burton – The New Quartet (1973)

Burton’s virtuosity is widely admired, but his ability to conjure perfect-sounding solos out of the air, apparently inexhaustibly, may still be underrated. And this date has him combining with the guitarist who, of all his guitar partners (there’s quite a list) can match him.

Mick Goodrick spent most of his career teaching at Berklee, like the leader, but was always worth hearing when he stepped out of the classroom, never more so than here. The beautifully balanced recording shows comping that’s almost telepathically responsive to the vibes. And each of his solos is a well-crafted jewel. He uses a clear-toned electric guitar set-up, with a hint of country and very slight rock edge, throughout, save for a switch to light wah-wah mid-way through a couple of solos. Every one of them flows beautifully.

The “new” quartet (there’s a much later recording under the same name with Julian Lage and Scott Colley) was Burton’s first recording for ECM, after a string of releases that laid down one set of templates for jazz-rock. (Frank Ricotti and Chris Spedding did something very similar in the UK at the same time, but that’s another story). I still listen to those, too. But this one has always stood out as a festival of uninterrupted brilliance.

This line-up, completed by Abe Laboriel on bass, where you’d normally expect to find Steve Swallow, and Harry Blazer on drums, only recorded once. Both were recent Berklee alumni. Laboriel here shows the electric bass technique that led him to a career as the most recorded session bassist ever. His solos are all youthful virtuosity, seemingly intent on proving he can play as fast as Goodrick: the sound of a man enjoying his own facility. Blazer, well, isn’t a creative match for past Burton drummers like Bob Moses or Roy Haynes, but is certainly no slouch. I wondered for years why he wasn’t heard of again, but he has apparently returned to performance recently after a lengthy and lucrative career in the whole food business in the US. Who knew?

They are a good pairing – the up-tempo numbers see them driving edgily on top of the beat, imparting a fine sense of urgency to Burton’s chiming chords and tumbling cascades of single notes. This set has long been on the music player that goes with me when I run, and always helps me pick up the pace when I’m flagging.

The other thing that makes this collection is the tunes. Burton has never written prolifically, but always had fine taste in composers – here he features Chick Corea, Mike Gibbs and Gordon Beck (twice each), and Keith Jarrett. I could choose any of them, but I’ve settled for the stately rendition of Carla Bley’s Olhos de Gato.

Burton always had an ear for Bley – he had already recorded her A Genuine Tong Funeral (best regarded as a Bley album) and would soon deliver an ECM record entirely devoted to her work. Here a poetic meditation on her beautiful, slow line sees the young rhythm hot shots take a back seat, and you can focus on the way Burton and Goodrick are perfectly in tune with the composer, and each other.

Burton has made records as good as this before and since, and the earlier ones are more historically significant I suppose. But track by track, I don’t know a better one. 

full album

Why the No 4? 

This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

And I’m going to collect them all on this page.

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