Recording of June 2009: Quartet Live!

Gary Burton, vibraphone; Pat Metheny, guitar; Steve Swallow, electric bass; Antonio Sánchez, drums
Concord Jazz CJA-31303-02 (CD). 2009. Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, prods.; David Oakes, eng. DDD. TT: 79:22
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Since the death of Milt Jackson, in 1999, Gary Burton has been the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the vibraphone. It is a specialty jazz instrument with relatively few practitioners, but fans of the vibes will tell you that no other instrument offers its seductive tonal allure. They will swear that every melody sounds more important, more resonant and singular in its moment, when played on the vibes.

Burton's profile has reached new heights in the new millennium, primarily because he restarted two of his oldest and most productive musical associations. In 2006 he reformed his duo with Chick Corea, then toured the world and made an album for Concord, The New Crystal Silence, that won him his sixth Grammy. In 2005 he had a separate reunion with Pat Metheny, who had joined Burton's band as a 19-year-old in 1974. Burton and Metheny re-created their original quartet (except for a new drummer, Antonio Sánchez) and began touring the US, Japan, and Europe. In 2007, during a stop at Yoshi's in Oakland, California, they made Quartet Live!. It will probably win Burton's seventh Grammy.

This is an all-star band that doesn't behave like one. What is absent is egoism. Metheny is a jazz version of a rock star who, on his own, can fill medium-sized soccer stadiums in Europe and large theaters in America. Here he devotes himself to a collaborative creative process. This deeply melded ensemble possesses an unmistakable sonic signature. Three of the instruments are electric, yet the sound is organic. It starts with the intertwining of two treble instruments so complementary they could almost be aspects of a single voice, except that Metheny's guitar has sharp edges even at its sweetest, and Burton's vibes are silky even at their most incisive.

And then this entity, this constellation of points of light in vibraphone and guitar polyphony, is set in motion by the subtly propulsive rhythm section of electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Sánchez. The gentle thrust of this music is addictive from the first track, Chick Corea's "Sea Journey." It feels as if the four of them step off into a current of flowing tides and are swept away. "Olhos de Gato," by Carla Bley, is a little slower but still throbs. This is chamber music with balls.

The rapport between Burton and Metheny is such that distinctions blur between soloing and comping, foreground and background. Burton lingers on the poignant theme of "Olhos de Gato" as Metheny ripples beside him. When Burton floats away and improvises, it is Metheny's chords in which the melody recurs. Metheny is the primary voice on his own "B and G," and reveals once again that his guitar is more directly connected to human emotion than any other electric instrument in jazz.

Except, perhaps, for the electric bass of Steve Swallow. No electric bassist has ever played with his fluidity and poetry. And Sánchez, with his complex energies and his vastness of percussive information, creates a brand-new context for this music.

As for Burton, he is the first source of the richness and depth of these aural landscapes. His mastery of the four-mallet vibraphone technique enables him to play single melodic lines concurrent with chords of three or four notes, and to configure clear designs of many layers.

Most of the 11 pieces here were originally written for the quartet 35 years ago, either by band members or by important composers such as Corea and Bley and Keith Jarrett. They are all atypical song forms with intriguing harmonies and mysterious lyricism. The new versions played at Yoshi's, even as they provide fresh perspectives, retain the focus and concision that is this band's discipline. The exception is the last track.

This writer heard the group at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia in July 2008, a year after this album was recorded. In Italy, in an outdoor soccer stadium, they stretched out more, and cut Metheny loose more often to do his thing and wail. The one track on Quartet Live! that approaches that wild party atmosphere is the last one, Metheny's 13-minute "Question and Answer," and it brings it all back—that balmy night under a full Italian moon when 5000 of the faithful screamed for more.

There seem to be fewer live jazz albums these days. Sonically, this is not a great live recording, but it is a good one. Engineer David Oakes, faced with the challenge of capturing three electric instruments and one clamorous drum set in the uncontrolled environment of a jazz club, gets close to the balance and detail of a studio recording. He also gets something no studio session can offer: a night of music in the real world, heard once by real people, the air electric with excitement.—Thomas Conrad