Between 18th and 20th April 1967, while The Beatles were in Abbey Road mixing ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ and ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’, influential young vibraphone player Gary Burton was in RCA Victor’s New York Studio B recording an album with his new quartet.
Although only twenty-four years old, Burton was a veteran of the jazz scene, having recorded half a dozen albums, played and recorded with Stan Getz and attempted a quite different stylistic fusion—jazz and country—on his 1966 album Tennessee Firebird. Technically, Burton was pushing the boundaries too, perfecting a unique four-mallet style that allowed clusters and washes of notes quite unlike the single line playing of vibe legends like Lionel Hampton or Milt Jackson.
The new Gary Burton Quartet album was called Duster, and in addition to the leader, the group comprised guitarist Larry Coryell, Steve Swallow on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. This was a most interesting group; perhaps the very first to genuinely attempt a fusion of jazz and rock sensibilities in a jazz scene dominated by middle-aged men. As Village Voice writer Michael Zwerin observes on the back cover of Duster:
‘Larry Coryell is important to it all. He is in the vanguard of a young and long-haired generation of musicians which is breathing new energy—the energy of rock and roll— into the folk music called jazz.’
With his background in rock, his rebellious long hair and his sharp, attacking guitar lines, Coryell was the perfect counterbalance to Burton’s vibraphone cascades. Only a couple of years later when Miles Davis actively set out to court the rock audience he was simply extending what Burton’s Quartet had begun. Author Stuart Nicholson offers this delicious anecdote:
‘In the summer of 1967 Burton’s group played Bill Graham’s Fillmore in San Francisco, sharing the bill with The Electric Flag and Cream. The Flag and Cream both used huge stacks of Marshall speakers, while in contrast Coryell used a small suitcase-sized Fender amp and speaker and Burton played acoustically. With only a fraction of the other groups’ volume they nevertheless won the crowd over.’*
Whether Duster will win over a non-jazz listener today is a moot point, as the record is absolutely rooted in jazz. This shows up particularly in the drumming, with veteran Roy Haynes (almost twenty years the senior of Burton) showing marvellous touch and well-polished jazz versatility.
Opening piece ‘Ballet’ (Michael Gibbs) is a rolling, swinging post-bop delight, where after the leader’s solo we have the first Coryell offering—interestingly pitched on the lower strings of the guitar as if to offer a tonal counterpoint to the shimmering vibes.
‘Portsmouth figurations’ rattles along with frenetic energy—Haynes gives it some snap!—while Swallow’s ‘General Mojo’s well laid plan’ subpoenas a four-square rhythm into a lilting melody with very pleasing results.
An album highlight is without doubt ‘One, two, 1-2-3-4’, the opening track on side two. This is a rip-snorting collision between virtuoso soloing—Burton and Coryell trade quicksilver lines—and avant-jazz blowing. It’s exciting, energetic, and easy to imagine someone who enjoys the later Davis electric bands being lit up by this piece despite the relative ‘cleanliness’ of the sound.
The ballads are, in the right mood, entrancing; sometimes pastel water lilies, sometimes stoned butterflies. There is often something shimmering and hypnotic about vibraphone textures, especially when accompanied by sympathetic guitar lines.
On release, Duster was awarded five stars by Downbeat (the iconic jazz magazine). Allmusic gives it four-and-a-half (Vinyl Connection’s rating also). This rather special album has been somewhat overlooked, yet is most deserving of investigation by both jazz fans and those interested in the birth of fusion.
A mere four months later**, the Gary Burton Quartet was back in the studio again to record another album. With Bob Moses replacing Roy Haynes on the drum stool, Lofty Fake Anagram has a somewhat gentler atmosphere than its predecessor. It’s as if the edges of the instrumental textures have been smoothed a little, without sacrificing any skill of execution.
Opener ‘June the 15, 1967’ (Gibbs) has a folky swing—imagine Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs. Robinson’ refracted through a jazz looking-glass—while elsewhere there is fast, almost chamber-jazz ensemble playing in ‘Lines’ contrasting with some sunset reflections in the sombrely titled ‘Mother of the dead man’.
In the sophisticated exploration of Ellington’s ‘Fleurette Africaine’ can be heard future echoes of Burton’s later work with Chick Corea. Which is interesting, as the next piece, the melodic ‘I’m your pal’ (Swallow) was one Gary performed (and recorded) with Chick in the late seventies. Some bass-driven moodiness (but fast!) surfaces in ‘The Beach’—I love this out-there piece—while the jazz-rock interface is far from forgotten on the free-form workout ‘General Mojo cuts up’ (Swallow) where Coryell really does cut it up, providing a fitting climax to the album.
I find it hard to pick a winner between Duster and Lofty Fake Anagram. The slightly more polished ensemble sound of the latter is balanced by the verve and freshness of the former. Maybe it’s enough that they are both excellent jazz albums with swirls of fusion energy adding extra vibrancy. Just don’t spend too much time trying to make an anagram out of Lofty Fake. It’ll distract you from the music.^
* Nicholson, Stuart (1998) Jazz Rock: A History. Schirmer Books, NY. [Page 33]
** August 15th – 17th 1967. Pink Floyd’s debut, The piper at the gates of dawn was almost two weeks old.
^ The best I could come up with was ‘Folky Fate’, though I quite like the anachronistic ‘Alt Key Off’.
Gary Burton Quartet - Duster Label: RCA Victor Released: mid-1967 Duration: 33:01
Gary Burton Quartet - Lofty Fake Anagram Label: RCA Victor Released: later in 1967 Duration: 37:48
This post honours the passing of guitarist Larry Coryell—brilliant, inconsistent, restless, prolific—who died on 19 February 2017, aged 73.
Prolific? Nearly 90 albums as leader. Restless? He flitted between jazz, rock and classical styles. Inconsistent? Larry should not have sung. Brilliant? The highlights are simply stellar and he was a major force in the creation and development of fusion.
Jazz fans will love this clip. So will Sixties fashion fans. And as for those who never realised that Steve Swallow was the long-lost sibling of John Cleese, well!