Gary Burton~Pat Metheny~Steve Swallow~Antonio Sanchez – Quartet Live (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

It’s been the season for fusion superstar comebacks lately. Last year the classic lineup of Return To Forever got back together and toured, culminating into the 2-CD live souvenir Returns. Later in the year, Corea hooked up with fellow Miles sideman John McLaughlin to headline a top-shelf-laden Five Peace Band, also documented on CD. And now, we have a reunion of sorts by vibraphonist Gary Burton’s groundbreaking Quartet.

It’s funny, because Gary Burton is rarely put in the same conversation as Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Weather Report or those groundbreaking records by Miles in the late sixties. But his vibes/guitar/bass/drums band was playing jazz-rock years before any of the better-known names were. Just listen to Duster from 1967 and you’ll see (umm, hear) what I mean.

And so many of his sidemen became big jazz or fusion stars in their own right. Larry Coryell was in that Duster band. Acoustic bassist Steve Swallow became all-world electric bassist Steve Swallow during the time he was in that band. Hall Of Fame drummer Roy Haynes played in the Quartet. Pat Metheny’s legendary career got started in Burton’s band when Metheny was only 19.

Metheny and Burton never really lost touch; the mutual respect and admiration for these two titans on their respective instruments was bound to lead to periodic get-togethers, such as 1989’s Reunion. It also led to a re-assembling of the Quartet for a one-time show at the Montreal Jazz Festival a few years ago, playing the same songs they played back in the day. But the chemistry and magic proved to be too much to limit to just a single appearance and soon this combo was touring all over Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

Joining Burton and Metheny was Swallow, who was equally thrilled to rekindle the good times. For the drummer, it was decided that instead of using a Quartet member from way back when, they chose Metheny’s main guy on the skins of late, Antonio Sanchez. So what if it wasn’t completely filled with Burton alumnus. This is one formidable lineup.

Quartet Live, out just this week, captures the group during their stop at Yoshi’s club in Oakland, California in June, 2007. I don’t know how long they had been touring together at that point, but it’s pretty clear they got any kinks worked out by then. If you’re not all that familiar with how a Gary Burton Quartet sound, it’s one smooth and tight unit.

It all starts with Burton, of course, and his innovative, four-mallet technique that greatly expands the harmonic footprint of his vibraphone and gives it piano-like qualities. Taking all the usual hyperboles you can direct at his highly developed and distinctive guitar playing, Metheny’s guitar really does fit in well with Burton’s vibes more than anyone else’s. It might be, as Burton noted in the liner notes, because Metheny actually knows how to play vibes himself and currently owns a set. Swallow, as can be said about all exceptional bass players, is at the center of this band. Having long ago bridged the wide gap between Oscar Pettiford and Paul McCartney, he brings both range and immutable swing to the overall sound, giving everyone else freedom to create without disturbing the integrated vibe. Sanchez frequently acts as an instigator, prodding along the front line, but never does so selfishly.

Put them all together and you get a vibe (no pun meant) that is consistently buoyant, dynamic, and hard swinging throughout. As it was in the vintage days, their sound occupies a rare space between jazz and jazz-fusion, and informed a good chunk of Metheny’s easily recognizable aesthetic. That’s no revelation, but is easy to forget as the passage of time has made Metheny a much bigger star than Burton ever was.

As stated above, the material that played are mostly culled from songs they played when Metheny and Swallow were in the band. There’s a song a piece from Burton and Swallow, three by Metheny (including two from his brilliant 1975 debut Bright Size Life) and the rest from sources very familiar to these guys, like Chick Corea, Carla Bley and Keith Jarrett.

Each of the songs by Corea and Bley (“Sea Journey,” Olhos De Gato,” “Syndrome”) possess strong melodies that retain just enough complexity to present puzzles that these players relished solving. Burton’s “Walter L” crosses over just inside rock territory, and Metheny actually rocks fairly hard during his solo, but even here, the band swings.

One of the highlights comes when the boys cover Swallow’s timeless classic tune “Falling Grace.” A tune he originally wrote for Bill Evans, “Grace” as performed here winds up revealing just how much these musicians are indebted to the influential pianist. Swallow, then Burton, then Metheny all give the kind of sensitive, melodious performances that each in their own way echo Evans’ subtly sophisticated approach to music.

Jarrett’s “Coral” is another piano-based song, to which Burton applies tender notes for this soft, low-key number. The band gives a fine reading to Duke Ellington’s “Fluerette Africaine” with a certain refinement, even when Burton is essentially playing the blues on his vibraphone. Metheny follows with similar lines, but with a bit more vigor.

Metheny is the best-represented composer on the set, but that’s no detriment. The pillowy “B and G (Midwestern Night’s Dream)” is followed by percolating “Missouri Uncompromised,” where Sanchez is rewarded for some strong rhythm support with some space to stretch out in a boisterous drum solo. Metheny pulls out the ol’ Synclavier guitar for “Question And Answer,” which ends the show.

This reconvened Gary Burton Quartet probably could have easily written new material and recorded them in a studio, but I’m glad they took the “live, with old songs” approach instead. We get to hear what these crack musicians—and just as importantly, old friends—sound like when they are really on their toes and feeding off the energy of performing before a crowd. Metheny in particular takes his game to another level when he’s playing on stage. It’s clear from Quartet Live that the three other guys did, too.

Here’s a video clip of the band performing the opening cut “Sea Journey,” but at the Umbria Jazz Festival last year:

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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