At 75, Gary Burton—a jazz giant since his teens—is one of the few musicians for whom a five-disc career retrospective seems too tiny. This is, after all, a man who not only led a pioneering fusion group with Larry Coryell rocking out on guitar, but was also equally at home playing with Stephane Grappelli or Astor Piazzolla. He recorded Carla Bley’s first concept album, A Genuine Tong Funeral, and introduced the jazz world to Pat Metheny, Mick Goodrick, and Julian Lage. And that doesn’t even begin to consider his career as an educator at Berklee.
He’s a virtuoso, no doubt, stunningly capable on all mallet percussion and also a fine keyboardist (although this set is solidly mallets-only). But as Neil Tesser points out in his liner notes, Burton was also a virtuoso improviser, blessed with impeccable phrasing, a kinetic sense of rhythm, and the ability to corral all those licks and flourishes into a narrative flow that ensured, as Tesser puts it, “he tells strong stories.”
Not surprising, Take Another Look covers a lot of stylistic ground. The set opens with an 18-year-old Burton in a trio absolutely burning on Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring,” sailing through the modulations as if he’d been playing bebop all his life. A few tracks later, he’s playing Carla Bley’s “Sing Me Softly of the Blues” with Larry Coryell, unassumingly laying the foundation for the fusion movement, two years before Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew. There’s a virtuosic sprint through Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” in which Burton, overdubbed in duet with himself, sounds like a vibraphone tornado, as well as a duo performance of “Crystal Silence” with Chick Corea in which piano and vibes almost melt into a single, shimmering sound. And at that point, we’re barely halfway in.
It’s hard to find fault with what’s included here, because every track is masterful, if not an actual masterpiece. And even though there’s only one previously unreleased cut, from the 2004’s Next Generation sessions, there’s plenty that will be new to some listeners, be it tracks from Burton’s long out-of-print RCA recordings or lesser-known recent fare like a bubbly piano/vibraphone treatment of a movement from Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” recorded with Makoto Ozone, that shifts seamlessly between jazz and classical.
Still, it’s not hard to wish for at least one more disc, and even be a bit irked by some of the omissions. Part of the problem is the set’s organization, sorting his 65-album career by label. Unfortunately, Burton’s time with the various labels wasn’t equal, and so boxing each tenure into the time of a single LP naturally distorts things. His output in three years for Atlantic is well surveyed; by contrast, his 15 years with ECM are boiled down to just five tracks. Yes, all five are brilliant, and “B&G (Midwestern Nights Dream)” may be my favorite Burton track ever, but couldn’t they have also squeezed in, say, the trippy “Inside In” from Hotel Hello, or a track from the opulently orchestral Seven Songs for Quartet and Chamber Orchestra?
Of course, that’s the problem with greatness—it always leaves you wanting more.