Chick and Gary
Chick and Gary
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1982
Your periodical partnership has been going on for a number of years now. How many is it?
Gary Burton: 1971, wasn't it? Ten years, that makes it. We didn't really do that much together in the first three or four years. Because we actually intended just to do an album— which was, in fact, suggested by Manfred Eicher of ECM. He finally talked us into doing it, we made the "Crystal Silence" album, and then we didn't really intend to follow up on that, but we kept getting requests for concerts from people who knew this album. The first year we did one or two concerts, the next year maybe one concert— a very sparse situation. However, we continued to get more and more requests, until we decided it was time to do another album (" Duet"), which was followed by a few more concerts. And then that really started snowballing it, to where now it's become a thing that we plan on doing a certain amount of the time.
It depends on how busy we are with other things, but it seems like now for the last three or four years we've been taking time out several times a year to get together and do short tours and things. We've done our third album, and we're starting the plans for the fourth one. So it's become a regular thing.
Didn't your original link- up have some connection with Stan Getz?
Burton: Not really. Chick, in fact, came on Stan's band after me, to be the next keyboard player when I left. And we didn't really know each other until after Chick left Stan even; we were brought together in New York by Steve Swallow, who knew both of us. We did play together briefly there in the late 'sixties just on our own, but it was really this chance meeting in Munich at a festival, with Manfred being there with Chick, that sparked this idea of even recording an album as a duet. I mean, that was unheard of as well at the time. I don't know about you, Chick, but I thought it was a pretty crazy idea, and didn't think much about it, until Manfred kept getting in touch with me and saying: "You really ought to do this." Fortunately, we did.
How about you, Chick? Could you visualise it taking shape?
Chick Corea : I could visualise it as the first record came out. We approached the new music we did sensitively; so I knew that it would sound good a certain way. After we began to play together a little bit, I saw that it not only sounded good but also felt very comfortable. Up to that point I hadn't done anything without drums, except for an occasional piano solo— and I liked the change of playing piano without bass or drums. With Gary, because it was so comfortable, it was a nice way to interact with another instrument. Since then, it's got easier and easier— now our level of ESP is very, very high.
Yes, that comes over very clearly.
But you had made a solo album before that, Gary—" Alone At Last" on Atlantic.
Burton: Yes, I'd done that, and Chick had done several, actually— he'd started doing them for Manfred. And, of course, people had done solo albums for years previously, from Art Tatum on. It was just that no one had thought of the idea of a duet like this. Well, maybe it had been tried somewhere throughout the past of jazz— as soon as I say that it hadn't been done before, someone's going to write in and say: "You're forgetting about the 1934 recording of such- and- such." But it certainly wasn't something we would have thought of ordinarily at that time. And, you know, it happened; it really clicked— it was a credit to Manfred that he imagined it and suggested it, because I don't think either one of us would have thought to try it, frankly.
I suppose there could have been an obstacle in that you're both playing harmonic instruments.
Burton: Well, that's an advantage, in fact. There's a time- honoured tradition of two pianos playing together; Chick, of course, has done this rather extensively with Herbie Hancock as well. And the vibes. . . at least, the way I play it— I play it as if it's a keyboard instrument; it's a piano- like concept. In a way, it's like we're two pianists playing together; so the rapport is easy— we think similarly on our instruments, and I can anticipate what he's likely to do and he me likewise, because of this similarity. Yet the instruments don't sound identical, the way two pianos would; therefore we have more variety in coloration available. It's sort of the best of two worlds: there is a great tie between the two instruments, and yet they sound unalike.
Do you find certain parallels, Chick, between your work with Gary and your two piano performances?
Corea : Well, the only similarity, really, is that it's a small format, and it's like chamber music. Other than that, everything about it is different, simply because when you scale down to playing with just one other individual, who that individual is, what musician he is, and what kind of music he makes is everything about what music comes out. So when I play with Gary, the kind of music that we make comes out vastly different than, for instance, the kind of music I make when I play with someone else in duet— like Herbie, or like Steve Puhjala, my flute player, or like Nicholas Iconomou, the pianist I worked with recently in Europe. . . or Gayle Moran, the singer— we do duets. Each one is so completely different, only because the person I'm working with is such a completely separate individual.
Burton: I suppose the most interesting thing of duets is that you get so intensely focussed on just the two people. With a group there's this constant interplay between four or five people, or whatever; even with three people it happens, so that you don't get locked in just on each other.
It's the difference between having a conversation with one person and having a group discussion with four or five. You get much more focussed and intense with rapport if there's just two of you. The same as solo playing has a unique feeling; it's like you're giving a speech to the audience all by yourself, and there's a certain kind of intensity to that. I think most of us who have tried playing solo would spy that it's nice to be able to do that as a contrast to always playing with a group.
In a sense, it's akin to the classical sonata concept, as with, say, a violin and piano piece.
Burton: Yeah. Except in that case it's usually the violin soloing and the piano is accompanying— although I must say I've heard some violin- piano music that seems rather equal. But it's not quite the same thing; particularly, of course, if you're improvising— there's a need for perhaps even more compatibility in what you're going to do, or you tend to shut off the other player's flow of ideas, instead of encouraging him to do his best.
How much actual preparation do you need before embarking on a concert tour together?
Corea : The groundwork has already been laid in the past year since we've developed our way of working together. The only additional preparation we ever do is finding music to play; I compose, we find other compositions to do, and we work them into the repertoire by going over them once or twice, then finding where to drop the new piece into the performance. Except the next album project we have in mind is going to take quite a bit of preparation, actually, because I'm going to write a piece for Gary and myself with a string quartet as well. So the composing will be a process, and then us looking at the music, getting accustomed to it, and seeing how to make it work with the strings will be a full process in itself. I'm looking forward to that. The music will be sort of like a double concerto idea, where there's two soloists and an orchestra that's made up of four strings.
Well, it's a logical follow- on to your previous things with string quartets integrated into groups.
Corea : I like the format of a string quartet; I like to write for it, and I like the fact that the sound can become as full as an orchestra almost— because it has all the range and colour.
Yes, it's a very full, warm sound. But when either of you writes a piece…
Burton: When he writes a piece— I haven't written a song in about eight or ten years.
Ah— I tend to think of something like “Arise, Her Eyes" as yours, but, of course, it's Steve Swallow's.
Burton: I mean, they're music from my group, anyway— but go ahead, ask your question. Excuse me.
Do you find that there's an immediate kind of dovetailing that takes place when you try a new theme?
Burton: Not necessarily; sometimes there is. The first album was remarkably easy— we did it in one afternoon. Generally, we'd spend thirty minutes learning the song, make a take, and stand there and say: "Gee, sounded great— okay, we'll do the next one." And the whole day seemed to go like that. But we've done some other things which have been more complex, where we've obviously had to try them at eight or ten rehearsals over a period of time, whenever we get together. We tend to rehearse every time we're doing a concert for half- an- hour or so at the sound check, to kind of gradually work up new songs and new material. But Chick tends to write occasionally rather major pieces for us, that require quite a bit of time both to learn to read the written parts and also to comfortably improvise on them. Once we have them, though, we feel very satisfied with them, because they're worth the work.
You were talking about ESP. Does this mean that intuitive things often happen when you're performing? Such as simultaneous improvisation coming off as if it were one voice.
Corea : Yeah. Well, that's the real fun and magic part of it, that underlies everything we do, I think, even when we're playing written music. We learn to sense each other's movement musically, and so, even playing a written part together, just knowing where to place the notes exactly together, if that's our intention, becomes a little magical. It's hard to explain, but I think it's just got to do with an understanding of one another's way.
Burton: We've gotten some pretty amazing moments sometimes, of sensing when something is going to happen and doing it together. The thing is, you don't get that much rapport with most musicians you play with; I mean, you feel some sense of rapport with a lot of musicians, but with a few of them in the course of your career you find a super- amount of rapport. Certainly I could say that about my playing with Steve Swallow, for instance, with whom I've played, off and on, for fifteen years. And it's the same with Chick— he's one of the other musicians that I can say I feel instantly at home with the minute we start playing, and it makes me feel that I can play my best when we're playing together. You know, it only seems to happen with a very few people you come in contact with.
Your coming together could be said to be a logical thing. You're both around the same age, you came up in the same musical era, listening to similar things, and you both are rooted in the classics as well as jazz.
Corea : It's true. I mean, if I had gone to Selectadate,
Gary's name might have come up!
Corea : I worked in your band, don't forget.
Burton: For six weeks, he was in my band— between guitar players. I don't know what year it was. Before you joined Miles— whenever that was. '68, or something like that? It was fun, but we never did really find a strong sound together in rapport; it was just comfortable, with a lot of mutual respect for each other's playing and so on., So there was the Munich meeting and the record, but we didn't really expect that much to happen from it. To everyone's surprise— we had changed during the years in between. And it seems as if perhaps the duet setting is quite a bit better for us than to play with a rhythm section in a group. There's something about just the two of us that seems to work by far the best. Though we've never really tried playing in a group much, other than a couple of times.
Corea : Well, that project with Steve and Roy should happen some time.
Burton: We keep talking about getting the same guys together again— with Roy Haynes and Steve, who were the rhythm section in that '68 group— and trying it again now that we know each other better, to see how it would be. So one of these days we probably will.
Corea : The quartet in Israel felt really good too.
Burton: That's true. We did a tour to Israel last Summer, and had Steve Swallow with another drummer, John Dentz, plus Mike Brecker playing. That was nice; we only did a few concerts— I'd actually forgotten about that. So we'll have to try some more of that.
Well, since those earlier years you've both worked in quite a wide variety of contexts, and your whole musical outlook has grown.
Burton: It still does keep changing a lot. Chick in particular seems to range far and wide in types of things; I'm forever being surprised, every time I run into him, about what his next project is going to be. I don't know what's coming next— Armenian polkas with whatever, maybe! Certainly, it's never a dull moment.
I suppose the thing about it just being the two of you, in your duet performances, is the absolute clarity of it— the fact that you're in complete sharp focus, and there is nothing to distract you from getting the most out of each other.
Gary Burton: Yeah, that's right. And particularly now that we've done it so long. I mean, at this point we've played, I don't know, a hundred- and- fifty, two hundred concerts together over the years, in bits and pieces of time. Now it would be fairly hard to bring in other musicians, and not have it lower our rapport a little bit, just because we're so familiar with each other's playing and have perfected this combination we have to this point. A couple of years back, we were wondering— I was wondering, anyway— whether we would run out of steam after a while, having started playing more concerts, and perhaps get tired of doing it. But that really hasn't happened. We keep thinking of new projects. Not to be bragging about this, but we're very proud of the live concert record we did in Zurich two years ago. Because we'd always felt that our live concerts had an intensity to them that we hadn't really captured on our first two records. Manfred Eicher of ECM happened, out of coincidence, to be at this same festival we were going to be on, recording someone else, and he suggested that we tape it, even though we weren't planning to do a record. And it turned out to be one of our best nights of playing. We were very glad that it turned out that way.
Well, with live recordings, you just hope that it is that magic night.
Burton: I know. My experience usually with live records— it's never my best night. It's usually one of the more mediocre nights; then I always wonder whether I should release it or not, get all uncertain about it and everything.
Over the years, has the collaboration between you developed in certain areas? Has it musically changed from the first time you did it?
Chick Corea: It's definitely musically changed. I mean, when we first began to play, I think our actual musical attack was kind of light. As the years and months have gone on, we've learned each other's ways so much more that both our playing together becomes more certain, more striking, more incisive and direct— you know what I mean? And it's a quality musically that I particularly love— and it's not easy to come by, because it takes not only a good technique but it takes a very clear understanding of the flow in what a musician is playing. There's a quality about striking an instrument very directly and clearly and simply that both of us do with the duet, and that I think is one of the technical reasons why the music sparkles so. That quality has grown, I think, over the years.
Burton: We certainly have more emotional range in the playing than we did at first. At first we were still pretty cautious; we didn't know this particular format that well, and we tended to play it safe, so that we didn't get into something that we couldn't really pull off. As we've gotten more confidence about it, we're able to play with a greater range of levels of dynamics. We can play quite big and powerfully now— which is something that I wouldn't have thought we would be doing as a duet, with just the piano and the vibraphone. In our most intense pieces, it actually is striking— it sounds like a whole group playing; it has the same intensity and drive as if it was a whole rhythm section and everything helping out. I wouldn't have expected that in the beginning, or wouldn't have even thought to try for it— but it just gradually developed as we did it more.
As far as I'm concerned, listening to you, it's the experience of hearing a kind of double virtuosity – a double- barrelled attack.
Burton: Uh- huh? Well, I guess that would describe it. That's the way we like to see it, anyway. You know, we can play everything from extremely intimate, which you can only do as a solo or a duet, up to a very powerful. So I feel like it gives me more range than I would normally even have with my own band or something, because of what we're able to do together.
Well, it's wonderful that this partnership has continued.
Burton: Yeah, we've felt that way ourselves; we certainly didn't expect it. We're looking forward a lot to this string quartet project, because this is the first time we've actually ventured beyond just the two instruments, and we're hoping that this will open the door to even more range for it. Also we're hoping to tour with the string quartet. In fact, our idea is to find a string quartet in each part of the world— one in Europe, one in Japan, one in the US— and then go do a tour in each section with the local string quartet, rather than bringing one from America and taking them all over the place.
Because we know there are good string musicians available here, in Europe and in Japan as well. We feel that would also create more local interest in the music. Their parts would be written, and then ours would be partially written, with sections open for improvisation. It's still in the forming stages; so we don't have a completely clear idea as to what the finished product is going to be like, but the concept of it is definitely taking shape for us.
Could this actually lead to recording at some later stage with a full orchestra? Is that conceivable?
Burton: We hadn't thought about that.
Corea: Conceivable, but in my mind at the moment it's impractical, because of the unwieldiness of large orchestras. I much prefer the idea of small groups; I can choose the musicians myself, and I can continue the intimate rapport that I like to establish with musicians on to a slightly larger group. With a large orchestra, I feel you have to go through the conductor and the management, and it's kind of a little out of control to me. Although. . . you know, conceptually, as a composer, I would love to write something for a large orchestra— but I haven't been able to bring myself to do it, for that reason. I would like to do it some day, and I'll find the right way into the subject, I think.
Aside from your collaboration, what other projects have you got going at the moment?
Corea: Well, a bunch of other things. After I do the project with Gary, my next project is going to be one of putting a quintet together for about two or three months, to record and to do some touring in March and April. I'm going to Australia, to Japan and to South Africa with my group; the music will be. . . it's hard to describe— it'll be with electric instruments, and I'm going to renew my association with Don Alias, the conga drum player, with whom I have a very good rapport, also with Steve Kuhjal the flautist and Tom Brechtlein, the drummer. So that'll take up part of the year. And I have a commission to write a chamber work for four strings, French horn, flute and piano, for the Lincoln Centre Philharmonic Chamber Society, which they commissioned me to do about a year- and- a- half ago. I'm going to write the piece in May, and premiere it in Miami in June. Then I have several other things throughout the year. I'm working on a record that I'm going to have released by ECM, of a trio project that I did in October, with Roy Haynes on the drums and Miroslav Vitous on the bass. I'm looking forward to working with ECM again in that way.
About eleven years ago you were operating to some extent in the free idiom. Do you have plans to go back into any of that?
Corea: Well, in fact, one of the recordings that we're going to work on for ECM, I think, is an album of free improvisation. Which is already recorded— we're just deciding whether that's the one to be on the record.
You haven't been doing anything with Gayle Moran lately. Is she into her own things? Corea: She's been writing some music. She's planning to do a second album; I don't know what form it's going to take, but she's gradually working up her ideas to do it. We worked together the whole of 1980 with my band, and I plan to do some more things with her. We occasionally do duet concerts, where I play piano solo and then Gayle comes and joins me and does some singing with the piano, that have been very enjoyable. We did a couple of concerts in Mexico some months ago that were very nice.
On a memorable concert in London in 1978, I enjoyed the spot you included in the programme where she just sang with the piano.
Corea: Oh, right— that was with the big band? Yeah, I remember that. She's a good songwriter, I think. She wrote a bunch of songs initially, and then used those songs for some years; she hadn't written any new ones, but recently she's been beginning to write again.
So the future, you would say, is wide open for you.
Corea: Very wide open. My personal love these days is to be acting as a composer more and more, and my plans way into the distant future are to put a lot of written music down. What I want to do is to grab the ideas that are so beautiful and also so fleeting in improvised music, and to try to take some of that feeling and set it down, so that others can play the music. Then it can be some more of a lasting contribution to the culture, rather than just live performances, which tend to get forgotten, I think.
It sounds very interesting. And as far as you're concerned, Gary – do you still have the quartet with the alto saxophone?
Burton: Yes, I do— Jim Odgren, Mike Hyman, Steve Swallow. We're about to do our next record— for ECM, of course.
Beyond that, I don't have any other projects on; the next thing, actually, that we're focussed on is this string quartet thing, which will be in the Summertime. But we're busy until then, doing tours in the States, and we're doing a long tour in the Caribbean and South America which seems to be a new market that's just been opening up lately. We've already been on two tours to South America this past year; we seem to be doing more down there.
You previously had a trumpet; now you've switched to saxophone— how did that come about?
Burton: Well, the trumpet player wanted to start his own band, after he'd been with me for almost three years— as is frequently the case. So he left, and I wanted another horn player again. It wasn't as if I was hiring a trumpet player, a saxophone player or whatever— I was more concerned about it being a horn player whose playing I liked; it didn't really matter much what instruments they played. Each time I was ready to hire one, I'd listened to a few horn players; I ended up picking a trumpet player, Tiger, for the first group. And I had known Jim when he was a student at Berklee several years previously, and had remarked the to myself: "Now here's somebody with talent, whose approach I like. I should keep an eye on him, because some day I might want to use him for something." I hadn't really thought about having a horn in my band at the time, but I thought I might have some special project that I would want to use him for. About the time I was looking for a replacement for Tiger; I heard that Jim had moved back to Boston from the West Coast. I called him up, he came over and played with us, and it sounded great. In fact, I like the saxophone even better than the trumpet, as far as the blend it gets with the vibes and with the group. So I presume that I'll stay with this combination for some time now; it's already been almost two years— I'm sure it'll last for quite a bit longer.
Well, the album, "Easy As Pie", is certainly very enjoyable.
Burton: Thank you. Well, we're looking forward to our next one. The first album was actually done soon after Tim joined us— we've certainly developed more rapport and understanding of how to blend the instruments now that we've had another year- and- a- half to play together. We think this next one will show an evolution from the first record.
There's obviously a lot of great listening ahead from both of you. I hope you'll both be back here, whether together or with your individual groups, just as soon as possible.
Copyright ©1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.