The Diverse Vibes of Gary Burton

By Brian L. Knight


The vibraphone is an enigma to the music world. The instrument's roots stretch far back to the African continent with the acoustic marimba and has since developed into the electrified vibraphone (Please see the interview with Joe Chambers for additional information on the marimba/vibraphone). Despite its long time tradition, the instrument remains a rarity in jazz music. During the modern jazz era, Milt Jackson, Carl Tjader, Lionel Hampton, Roy Ayers, Bobby Hutcherson and now Stefon Harris have represented the instrument. Perhaps one of the most versatile vibraphonists was Gary Burton. Either through his four mallet technique (kind of like having twenty fingers or four drum sticks) or electric guitar-like effects, Burton always strove to redefine the instrument. What set Burton apart from his predecessors was his technique. In the liner notes to his breakthrough album, 1963’s New Vibe in Town, Burton explained his view on the vibes: " Vibes have never been exploited very much because no one has developed enough technique. I’d like to try and do it." Through his four-mallets, Burton chose to create complex chord structures rather than the standard single note approach of Hampton and Jackson. 1999 has hailed to two re-releases, Good Vibes(Koch) and Alone At Last(32 Jazz), in which Burton’s wide gamut of style and technique is represented. At one moment, Burton is rocking away and at the next, he is providing thought- provoking smooth sounds. Burton was extremely diverse in an instrument that was perceived as being limited and these two recordings show his eclecticism.


Gary Burton/Good Vibes (Koch)

Two years after his ethereal and groundbreaking release, 1967’s Duster, Burton released this jazz-rock classic. Duster was an album that carefully made the crossover while Good Vibes was a full-fledged dive into the rock and roll spectrum. With the distorted sounds of the electric vibes on "Vibrafinger", it is very difficult to ascertain what instrument is creating which sound. The tremendously underrated guitar playing of Eric Gale and Jerry Hahn also grace the album throughout. From the flamenco of "Las Vegas Tango" which is Clint Eastwood meets Milt Jackson on Haight Ashbury Street to the wailing blues of "Boston Marathon", these two cover every guitar style possible with Burton’s providing his own take on the styles as well. If the fusion work of Herbie Mann has any interest with you, then Gary Burton’s Good Vibes should be equally as appealing. They both took a relatively obscure jazz instrument and fused them masterfully with rock and roll. In addition, Herbie Mann often recruited the vibe work of Roy Ayers, who shared a similar technique and style as Burton. Good Vibes represented Burton’s sampling with the fusion, but he was equally known for his Cool, Latin and be-bop works. When Atlantic Records promoted the album in 1969, the used the slogan "Jazzmen Gone Rock". His touring band even further expanded on the rock and roll relationship by wearing casual clothes and wearing their hair wrong. Long before Miles Davis filled San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, Gary Burton shared a bill at the venue with the Electric Flag and Cream and like some "Hendrixian ritual", the band would finish their live performances by piling their instruments at the center of the stage and solemnly departing.


Gary Burton/Alone at Last (32 Jazz)

While Good Vibes was Burton’s answer to rock and roll jazz psychedelia, Alone At Last was a return to the ethereal sounds that the vibraphone symbolizes. 1971’s Alone At Last is a fascinating combination of three live cuts from the 1971 Montreaux Jazz Festival and four studio recordings. The studio sessions, especially "Chega De Saudade (No More Blues)" displays Burton’s dual mastery of the vibraphone, electric piano, piano and organ. The recording is as much as a testament to studio wizardry and overdubbing as it is to Burton’s virtuoso. In contrast, the three live recordings show Burton all alone with the vibraphone. With Burton’s four-mallet technique, he is still able to create a full sound as a single unit. In a manner similar to Keith Jarrett’s memorable solo Koln concerts, Burton creates a very introspective and contemplative environment with his solo excursions. This comparison is further shown with Burton’s version of Jarrett’s "Moonchild/In Your Quiet Place." In addition, Burton displays his long time companionship with bassist Steve Swallow with a live version of Swallow’s "Green Mountains/Arise, Her Eyes" and studio renditions of "Hullo, Bolinas" and "General Mojo’s Well Laid Plan", which also appeared on Duster.

Through Koch and 32 Jazz, we receive two distinct views of vibraphonist Gary Burton in which we see the vibraphonist’s diversity in playing styles. From a large rocking band to live soloing; from the soft four mallet approach to the use of electronic effects, Burton covered a lot of bases. In addition, we also get to hear diversity in playing instruments. In both of these recordings, Burton makes the traditional crossover between the vibraphone and piano instruments. The two instruments are similar in their horizontal layout, which makes for an easy transition. The vibraphone is definitely one of the less popular sounds in jazz yet one of the most distinctive sounds. Give these albums a try and you may just race down to the music store and get one for yourself.