On September 4, pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton will release their sixth duo album together, Hot House (Concord), on which a review is forthcoming sometime next week. Before addressing that new album, however, here’s a good time to re-examine their first three — two studio albums and one live document — all from ECM Records and all from the 70s. As this has been one of jazz’s most enduring and consistently exhilarating duos, ECM had feted this partnership a few years ago with the release of a box set containing their entire output for the storied label. We find in going back to these performances how Corea and Burton contributed greatly to ECM’s legacy during these critical, identity-forming years.
The story begins in early 1971, when Keith Jarrett and Gary Burton released an album together (Gary Burton & Keith Jarrett) that perhaps for the first time, featured a pianist and vibes player as the co-leaders on a record. That record, which demonstrated how well Burton works with a top pianist, gave ECM head Manfred Eicher in early 1972 the idea of pairing Burton with one his own label’s then-current star piano players: Chick Corea. After some trepidation, Burton and Corea did convene in the studio that November to record their first record together, but any doubts about how this then-unusual vibes/piano duo combination might work were erased when the two were unexpectedly thrust together at the Solo Now Festival in Munich, West Germany the prior August. The standing ovation they received from their impromptu debut confirmed that Eicher’s idea was inspired.
Crystal Silence, as the album is titled, became known as a key entry in both of these important artists’ discography and even winning a Grammy. There are several reasons for this, despite this record coming out right into the headwinds of jazz becoming louder and more electric (and Corea himself was a central figure of that trend, as well as the countertrend he and Burton helped to foster).
First off, they didn’t approach the project as making a “jazz” record per se, though the improvisational nature might strongly suggest otherwise. However, they also drew heavily from chamber music. Chamber jazz was hardly a new concept by 1972, but to deploy it in such a small, duo setting involving the vibraphone certainly was. Secondly, most of the songs were drawn from Corea’s pen (a couple, including the title track, just appeared on the first Return To Forever album). This was during one of his most productive run of great songs, from which even a few standards emerged. And lastly, these guys just flat out played their asses off, seemingly pushing each other to perform at the highest level. The empathy between the two was…and still is…staggering, playing like a single, four-armed man clutching a pair of mallets a piece in two of them. There’s nothing getting in the way between the virtuosity and the listener’s ears, since the songs and the acumen required to play them the way they did became one.
Corea introduced a few of his significant tunes, like the lightly frolicking “Señor Mouse,” which became “Captain Señor Mouse” in the decidedly heavier Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy RTF album the following year. The first of Corea’s “Children’s Song” vignettes bowed on Crystal Silence,. Conversely, he took songs he already recorded in a different setting and reconstructed them with Burton. The title track (YouTube below), a beautiful, winsome song already when RTF recorded it, is more contemplative, more investigative in this incarnation.
That album kicked off a partnership that has lasted to this day with at least a few performances together every single year since then. Nonetheless, it would be another six years before they entered a studio together again to record the Crystal Silence follow-up. Simple titled Duet, the special charm of this record isn’t the performances or the songs, again which are wonderful, but the sound. Recorded in a chapel in Oregon, the resonance coming from the unique acoustics of the room makes both piano and vibes leap out more than before, but not so much that it becomes too muddled. More “Children’s Songs” are tried out here, following an epic “Duet Suite.” But they saved the best for last: a rousing rendition of Corea’s “La Fiesta” that’s bursting at the seams.
On a 1979 Zurich date supporting that Duet album, Corea and Burton were captured on tape, producing their first live album, the double-disc In Concert. When ECM first released it on CD in the 80s, twenty minutes were lopped off to fit it on a single compact disc. This box set restores those minutes, stretching out In Concert to two discs again. The program begins just as Crystal Silence does, with a decidedly less meek “Señor Mouse,” followed by a note-perfect Bud Powell tribute where Burton turns his vibes into a indestructible bebop machine.
As with the prior two releases, at least one Steve Swallow song is represented — presumably suggested by his former band leader Burton — and disc 2 has three of them. Burton performed Swallow’s “I’m Your Pal/Hullo, Bolinas” solo, followed by Corea’s solo performance of his own tune “Love Castle.” Corea and Burton perform Swallow’s standard “Falling Grace” ostensibly along parallel harmonic lines, each of the making a standalone performance of the song simultaneously.
Gary Burton and Chick Corea have kept this special partnership thriving well beyond its ECM beginnings, releasing Native Sense: The New Duets (1997) and The New Crystal Silence (2008), among a handful of other recorded collaborations and a concert DVD. Each time, they manage to find a way to make it sound fresh and new. But there is also remaining a familiarity to all their recordings, getting together like old friends with the sense of wonderment and excitement that was surely there from the moment of their happenstance encounter in Munich in August of 1972.
Crystal Silence, The ECM Recordings 1972-1979 went on sale September 8, 2009 by ECM Records.
Here’s a look back at our past thoughts on other classic 1970s ECM recordings. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
Keith Jarrett/ Jan Garbarek/ Palle Danielsson/ Jon Christensen – Sleeper: A live recording of a premier performance in Tokyo in 1979 is finally taken out of the vaults and added to the sparse discography of Jarrett’s celebrated “European Quartet.”
Jan Garbarek – Dansere Box Set: Three of Garbarek’s seminal early records with pianist Bobo Stenson that formed the foundation for modern Scandinavian jazz and that classic, unmistakable “ECM Sound.” Also includes important contributions from other ECM Records mainstays Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen.
Terje Rypdal – Odyssey: In Studio and In Concert (1975, 2012 reissue): Combines into one set the complete recordings of compositions by Rypdal for his first working band, Odyssey. This is an essential chronicle of a turning point in the career of one of the Europe’s most idiosyncratic and creative guitarists.
Eberhard Weber – Colours (2010 reissue): German bassist and composer Weber successfully downscaled his grand scheme devised for The Colours Of Chloë into a nimble little group and influenced many of his ECM label-mates as well as other major contemporary jazz musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
Enrico Rava – The Pilgrim And The Stars (1975, 2008 reissue): Pilgrim is a uncompromising blend of Euro-jazz and American hard bop that launched the reign of one of Europe’s finest jazz trumpeters.
Keith Jarrett – The Köln Concert: Right in the midst of the fusion craze, Jarrett revealed a lot of untapped interest in acoustic and unlabored jazz, as long as the music was honest and fresh. And thirty-five years later, The Köln Concert sounds as fresh and honest as it did when these songs were composed, in front of a live audience.