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A leader who listens

Jazz great Gary Burton inspired by new quartet’s collective musicianship

The New Gary Burton Quartet is (from left) drummer Antonio Sanchez, vibraphonist Burton, bass player Scott Colley, and guitarist Julian Lage. The New Gary Burton Quartet is (from left) drummer Antonio Sanchez, vibraphonist Burton, bass player Scott Colley, and guitarist Julian Lage. (Ted Kurland Associates)
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / September 23, 2011

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Ever since Gary Burton collaborated with Argentine bandoneón master Astor Piazzolla in the mid-1980s, he’s taken to performing in a crisp black shirt, emulating the de rigueur uniform of a tango musician. But the vibraphonist could just as appropriately take the stage clad in a scientist’s white lab coat, given the rigor and carefully road-tested skills that define his long and confoundingly productive career as a bandleader.

The New Gary Burton Quartet, which closes the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival on Sunday at the Berklee Performance Center, is his latest triumph, a fascinating chamber jazz hybrid that seamlessly melds two exquisitely matched musical pairings. He credits drummer Antonio Sanchez with recommending his frequent rhythm section partner Scott Colley for the bass chair.

“First I pick the drummer who I feel fits the music, then I ask the drummer which bassist they would pick,’’ says Burton, 68, noting that he worked extensively with Sanchez when he assembled the all-star band with bassist Steve Swallow and guitarist Pat Metheny documented on 2009’s “Quartet Live.’’

Burton might rely on his drummers for personnel advice, but he built the new quartet around 23-year-old guitar phenom Julian Lage. Burton started playing with the northern California native before he was a teenager, eventually launching his Generations Band as a vehicle to collaborate with the self-possessed prodigy.

With their bandstand relationship on hiatus while the guitarist studied at Berklee, Lage went on to launch his own combo, a singular folk-jazz chamber quintet that released the critically hailed concept album “Gladwell’’ last April. Ecstatic to be working with Burton again, Lage rejoins his mentor with a whole new appreciation of Burton’s frontman finesse.

“Gary is the ultimate bandleader,’’ Lage says. “Antonio and Scott are such an established rhythm section, and Gary and I have such an established sound together. Sometimes it feels like two duos that have two distinct perspectives on this music. But we’re all so focused, ultimately everyone’s on the same page.’’

One way that Burton brought the two sides together was by encouraging everyone to contribute to the band’s book. The New Gary Burton Quartet released its debut album, “Common Ground,’’ in June, and every player is responsible for at least one tune. What’s most striking about the music is its probing, conversational quality.

“Gary has made it very clear from the beginning that we’re all welcome to present ideas and collaborate,’’ Colley says. “It’s been a great process to connect these two elements. Julian’s sound is adaptable to anything. He’s incredibly open to new ideas and concepts.’’

From the beginning of Burton’s career as a teenage prodigy much like Lage, the vibraphonist has gravitated to guitarists who embrace the twang. His first big-league champion was Nashville studio legend Hank Garland, with whom Burton made his recording debut at 17.

His seminal fusion albums, 1967’s “Duster’’ and “Lofty Fake Anagram,’’ depended upon the startling rock-tinged fretwork of Larry Coryell. Assisted greatly by Burton’s three-decade tenure on faculty and as a top administrator at Berklee College of Music, which gave him widespread access to prodigious teenage players, his band turned into jazz’s most productive proving ground for brilliant young guitarists, from Mick Goodrick and Metheny to Wolfgang Muthspiel and Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Lage has returned to the fold with an original voice that he honed on acoustic guitar and then applied to his archtop. It’s a sound so warm and intimate you can almost hear his notes breathe.

“I’m proud to say that Julian has really developed his own style, an acoustic concept he’s brought to the electric guitar that I don’t hear with any other player,’’ Burton says. “He’s got a way of pulling and bending strings when he plays intense phrases that reminds me a little of Gypsy guitar style he admired as a kid.’’

Burton’s generosity with his band doesn’t detract from his stature as first among equals, a jazz giant who possesses a luxuriant touch and tone that belie the vibraphone’s reputation as a cold, impersonal ax. As an improviser, he spins lines so gracefully constructed they can sound premeditated (until you hear him take an entirely different tack on the next show).

“Every solo he plays feels like he thought it over,’’ Sanchez says. “It’s an amazing thing he does, playing solos that feel composed.’’

Ultimately, what makes Burton such an effective bandleader is that he doesn’t try to impose a grand vision on his collaborators. To hear Lage talk about the quartet is to hear youthful insecurity washing away, replaced by confidence that he can reach an audience beyond Burton and his colleagues.

“In the past I would have wanted to play to make Gary happy and impress my bandmates,’’ Lage says. “That’s still important, but we’re playing music for everybody, not just jazz fans. I still want to prove myself, but we all trust each other and know we’re the right people for the gig.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at


At: Berklee Performance Center, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $25-$35. 617-747-2261.