Long-term relationship plays well: Metheny & Burton

Boston Globe, June 14, 2009

NEW YORK – It’s a cold, drizzly spring afternoon in Times Square, but in the hotel suite overlooking the dull hurry of tourists and umbrellas, Pat Metheny looks as if he’s just stepped in out of the blazing sunshine, in shorts and a T-shirt, tousled hair crawling out from under a baseball cap.

“Pat only came half-dressed,” Gary Burton cracks. Burton, the distinguished vibraphonist, bandleader, and music educator, is dapper in slacks and a blazer over a smart striped shirt.

Metheny, the revolutionary guitarist whose every musical move is tracked by a huge global fan base, lives on the Upper West Side; he and his wife just had a baby, their third child, so Burton’s hotel is a more conducive spot for conversation.

The two go back a long way.

In the late 1960s, Burton’s unorthodox band was blurring all the lines, fusing rock and country music with compositions by Carla Bley or Duke Ellington. In Lee’s Summit, Mo., the teenaged Metheny tuned in – and it blew his mind.

“I mean, that was it for me,” Metheny says. Growing up in the Midwest, he heard country music all around: Burton’s band had that. He was keen on classical: Burton did that. He was far from the coastal counterculture – in Missouri, he says, “1967 was more like ‘63 everywhere else” – but he knew there were big changes going on. Burton’s band confirmed that: “It was a lot like the Beatles. Like, wow, what are they going to do now?”

The rest is jazz history. In 1975, Metheny joined Burton’s band, swapping super-fan status for that of contributor to the group at a whole new period of development, increasingly marked by the cool, elegant aesthetic of German record label ECM. By 1978, Metheny’s own group was aloft. Burton’s prolific career continued, twinned to a long run as a top administrator at the Berklee College of Music, from which he retired in 2004.

And now, the reunion.

As is often the case among busy touring jazz musicians, it began as a one-shot festival concert, when Metheny invited Burton to join him at Montreal in 2005 alongside Burton’s original bassist, Steve Swallow, and Metheny’s drummer, Antonio Sanchez.

“We weren’t planning to do anything but one gig for the fun of it,” Burton says. But revisiting the music they had made together, they realized two things: The songs were still good, and their connection as players, as improvisers, was intact.

A pair of tours ensued, and now a record, released last month and titled simply “Quartet Live.” The group comes home to Boston (Metheny lived here for many years, and Sanchez is a Berklee alum; Burton now lives in Florida) Saturday at the Berklee Performance Center.

Burton and Metheny shoot the breeze like old pals, sharing musical anecdotes, updates on colleagues, and favorable assessments of the acoustics in a particular concert hall in Argentina.

What’s palpable is Metheny’s continued reverence for Burton, so many years after their first meeting. That was in 1973, when Metheny, newly living in Miami, rode the bus back to Wichita, Kan., to meet his idol. He was nervous. “When I walk in, my knees just start shaking, I’m freaking out,” he says.

Metheny introduced himself and began playing “Walter L,” a Burton tune. The occasion was a college music festival, and after a short set of his own (“We sucked,” he judges), he got to sit in with Burton’s band.

Burton tries to get in on the story: “I remember you asking if I had any advice for you …

Metheny interrupts: “I can tell it all – this is like the most significant day of my life!” he says. “You actually made the effort to come see the last couple of tunes of our set. Then afterward you talked to me for two or three hours about everything that I should do. Which was pretty awesome.”

In time, the influence would flow both ways. A hallmark of Burton’s groups over the years has been the pairing of vibraphone and guitar, two instruments sometimes at the margins of conventional jazz lineups but deeply suited to each other.

Burton says country guitarist Hank Garland pioneered this combination, inviting Burton to play with him in Nashville. The notion stuck: “When I went to start my own group, the guitar was beckoning,” Burton says. “It was the sound that I kept going back to, because it seems to flatter my instrument to a great extent.”

Burton himself is credited for the four-mallet technique that opened whole new horizons for the vibes, and he honors another guitarist, Jim Hall, for shaping his sound.

“Vibraphone chords are primarily four notes, not six or eight like a piano voicing,” Burton says. “And the truth is, my biggest influence for voicings was Jim Hall, who played usually the top three or four strings for his voicings. And they were so hip and so cool that I said, hey, those are the same notes that I want to use, the same shapes. And then there’s this sound business. The vibes sound like the vibes, the guitar sounds like the guitar, but if you put them together, they blend and become sort of a super instrument.”

Metheny says it’s no surprise that a slew of fine guitarists, including Larry Coryell, Mick Goodrick, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and recently Julian Lage, have been drawn to work with Burton.

“It’s such a fantastic guitar opportunity,” Metheny says, “and that particular dialect, those voicings, it’s almost like a way of implying information rather than banging it out.”

On “Quartet Live,” as on the records they did together in the ’70s like “Passengers” and “Dreams So Real,” Burton and Metheny showcase this effect. In unison playing, they seem to finish each other’s phrases. The solos advance rather than reset the story. Spare and lyrical, the playing conjures that open-sky effect, familiar to Metheny’s fans, that so effectively invokes the American heartland.

What’s less familiar is the chance to hear Metheny, a natural leader who’s not averse to searing, pyrotechnic solos, work here as a sideman. Sanchez, Metheny’s drummer for the past 10 years, had never seen that before this reunion.

“Pat has such a clear idea of what he wants to do, and that’s why he’s a band leader,” Sanchez says on the phone. “It was interesting to see him sit back and let Gary direct. It was cool to see him in that light.”

The youngster and newbie in the group, Sanchez says he’d love to see them hit the studio and record new material. But he says the existing repertoire – compositions by Metheny, Burton, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and others – has stood the test of time, with great writing and instrumentation that avoided synthesizers and other ’70s cliches.

Metheny says this freshness shows just how groundbreaking Burton’s work was, along with the likes of Jarrett and Herbie Hancock, in advancing the vocabulary of jazz.

Burton, the mentor, hands the compliment back to his reunion-tour bandmates and the interplay they’ve tapped into so instinctively after all these years.

“The way the roles just fit together and the lines connect so well,” Burton says. “It’s the sort of dream circumstance you always hope for in a group rapport.”