Long-running jazz duo interpret standards

Pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton have been trading licks on stage and in the studio for 40 years.
Courtesy Germantown Performing Arts Centre)

Pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton have been trading licks on stage and in the studio for 40 years. Courtesy Germantown Performing Arts Centre)

Jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton first met pianist Chick Corea in 1972 at a festival in Munich, East Germany. Corea was already a legend, having just come off a stint in Miles Davis' band that included making the classic albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Burton, at 29 two years young than Corea, was a rising star, a former Nashville session player who in 1968 had been named Down Beat magazine's "Jazzman of the Year."

The two men were on the bill separately and did not know each other. But when the promoter asked if any musicians were interested in joining a jam session at the end of the night, they were the only two to raise their hands.

"We jammed one song," Burton recalls by e-mail. "It went over so well, talk began about making a record together. After that record — 1972's Crystal Silence — came out we started getting requests for concerts, and that launched our duet. We've been at it 40 years now."

The latest chapter in the partnership plays out Sunday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, where the two will perform with the Harlem String Quartet in a concert promoting their latest album, Hot House.

"We're still feeling excited about playing together and discovering new material," Burton says. "Our high level of rapport hasn't dimmed, and that's one of the key factors keeping us interested in the music we play as a duet."

It's been an uncommonly long and fruitful collaboration. The pair team up for at least a few shows every year, and over the decades have produced eight records and picked up five Grammy Awards.

Burton was raised in Anderson, Ind., and began vibraphone lessons when he was 6.

"It really wasn't me who chose it," he says of the unusual choice in instrument. "There was a lady in the town we lived in then who gave lessons on marimba and vibraphone, and that's where my parents took me to start music lessons."

By high school, Burton was accomplished and renowned enough that Nashville guitar wizard Hank Garland tapped him to play on his landmark Jazz Winds From A New Direction when he was just 17 years old. Burton spent the next few years playing with jazz luminaries like George Shearing and Stan Getz before forming his own quartet in 1967 with guitarist Larry Coryell, drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Steve Swallow. The group's album from that year, Duster, won Burton his first Grammy Award.

Having earned his credentials as a player, in 1971 Burton returned to his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music in Boston, as a professor. He spent 33 years at the school, working his way up to executive vice president before retiring in 2003, a commitment that, combined with his and Corea's numerous other projects, led to the duo's infrequent recordings over the years.

"We do a new record when we hit on a new idea or concept, or just feel like it's about time," Burton says.

When he retired from Berklee, Burton rededicated himself to his playing career, and in 2008 he and Corea released their first record in a decade, The New Crystal Silence, a live album that featured the pair performing with an orchestra.

The musical conversation reignited when earlier this year Corea and Burton released a new record, Hot House, which features their takes on compositions by Kurt Weill ("My Ship"), Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Chega de Saudade"), and The Beatles ("Eleanor Rigby")

"The motivation for Hot House came from a conversation we had about the idea of playing standards by some of our favorite composers," Burton says. "The more we talked about it, the more we liked the concept."

Hot House concludes with a Corea original, "Mozart Goes Dancing" that is a preview of their upcoming collaboration with the Harlem String Quartet, with whom they are currently touring.

Burton will have to squeeze that project into a busy schedule that renders moot his so-called retirement a few years ago. Last year, he unveiled a new version of the Gary Burton Quartet with rising young players with guitar star Julian Lage, Antonio Sanchez on drums, and Scott Colley on bass. And if nurturing a trio of next-generation players isn't enough, he has recently returned to the field of education with an online class at his old school.

"When I was preparing to retire from Berklee, my last big project was launching the Berklee online division," he says. "I got interested in creating a course for myself so I could be part of this new area of education. I launched my course this past January and have really enjoyed getting back into teaching in this new way. I expect I'll continue with the course for some time to come. Even if I perform less at some point in the future, it will always be possible to continue teaching."

Chick Corea and Gary Burton with the Harlem String Quartet

7 p.m. Sunday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, 1801 Exeter. Tickets: $35, $45 and $55, plus handling fee; available at 901-751- 7500 and online at gpacweb.com.

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