Farewell to the Chief

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On March 5, Gary Burton fans in Boston got a last chance to hear “The Chief” as he is nicknamed, perform in the Berklee Performance Center (BPC)  with Japanese jazz and classical piano phenom Makoto Ozone ’83. during their Boston stop on Burton’s farewell tour. Throughout his long and fruitful career, Burton has been an innovator in jazz in several areas. His use of four mallets in the genre represented a leap forward in vibes technique. He was also among the first musicians to blend rock and jazz and appeared on the bill in the 1960s with Cream at the Fillmore West. He has also been a trendsetter with his deep exploration of the piano-vibes instrumental combination. Burton’s performances and recordings with Chick Corea and Ozone over several decades set the bar extraordinarily high for those who have followed in this chamber jazz duet template.

At the Boston concert on March 5, Burton reminisced, sharing with the audience that as a Berklee student he went to movies in the BPC with his friends. When the hall opened as a music venue in 1976, he played in the first concert. Another first was hearing Makoto Ozone play at the BPC as a Berklee student more than three decades ago.

During their last Boston appearance, Burton and Ozone masterfully showcased the near telepathic musical rapport they have developed after years of concertizing and recording. Within the parameters of the piano-vibes sonority, they deftly varied the mix of shadows and light in the music. Each player offered a solo intro or unaccompanied improvisations, and at times Ozone soloed with only his right hand or in two-handed octaves, allowing Burton full freedom in his accompaniment.

A striking feature of much of the music from Burton’s repertoire is its harmonic richness. His penchant for lush harmonies—sometimes changing rapidly and other times brooding modally—has always showcased his gift for spontaneous melodic lines that fully mine the depths of the underlying structure of every tune.

The program featured some chestnuts like Chick Corea’s “Bud Powell,” on which they were totally locked in as they harmonized on the head. Their rendition of James Williams’s “Soulful Bill” exhibited each player’s rhythmically agile phrasing over the tune’s easy jazz waltz feel. Before playing Chick Corea’s “Brasilia,” Burton told the crowd that the song had nothing to do with Brazilian music. The piquant dissonances of the melody, sometimes harmonized in seconds, bore this out.

Burton shared a souvenir from the period in his career when he worked with Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, a rare Burton original, “Remembering Tano” (Piazzolla’s nickname) in the tango master’s honor. As a change of pace, they presented “Opus Half,” a tune penned by Ozone’s father, also a jazz pianist. Burton and Ozone took it uptempo with lines flying at breakneck speed. Burton’s solo leaned into the blues and Ozone’s touched on stride piano style at times. The duo also showcased its classical side by playing arrangements of the Prélude from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti.

After completing the tour, Ozone expressed via e-mail that he will miss performing with Burton: the vibes master intends now to turn his attention to nonmusical activities. 

Burton, a seven-time Grammy winner, stated, “I feel like I have accomplished much or perhaps most of the things I set my sights on. A few years ago, I noticed the start of a decline in my playing abilities for reasons of age and health. I feel it’s right to move on to a new phase of my life. I will explore possibilities—perhaps take some college courses, maybe write another book. I see the future as a great new adventure just waiting for me.” As the Chief exits the spotlight, Boston says a heartfelt thanks for the music, and best wishes on your new journey.