Saturday, March 18, 2017

Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone mark the end of an era at the Jazz Kitchen

For a half-century, Gary Burton created and upheld a personal style as well as a high standard on his instrument— one perpetually out of the mainstream in jazz, despite stellar contributions 70 to 80 years ago by Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton.

Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone are capping 34 years of playing together.
The vibraphone, fluently broadening its textural richness with his four-mallet technique, has had no more durable a proponent than Burton, born 74 years ago in Anderson and, as of March 17, ending his U.S. career in his home state in a duo appearance with pianist Makoto Ozone at the Jazz Kitchen.

The first set Friday night found the well-established Northside club packed, with an audience including Burton's longtime manager, Ted Kurland, from Boston. At the end of the set, Lewis Ricci of the Indiana Arts Commission read a proclamation from the governor that in effect put a localized Gary Burton layer over St. Patrick's Day. And Jazz Kitchen proprietor David Allee presented the retiring star with a framed color photograph of the musician in action a number of years back at the Indy Jazz Fest. The honors were the icing on the cake of the warm reception the duo got from the crowd.

The Burton-Ozone partnership goes back 34 years, the Japanese pianist noted in remarks from the bandstand. Soon after Ozone's graduation from the Berklee College of Music, where Burton enjoyed a long run as a faculty member, he started working professionally with the vibraphonist. The rapport, brought up to date by the current tour, of which Indianapolis was the final stop, was evident from the first phrase on.

In a phone interview I conducted with Burton last week, the older musician praised Ozone for the breadth of his musical interests and the great range which that has given their collaboration over the years. A sign of that Friday night was their arrangement of the first movement ("Prelude") of "Le Tombeau de Couperin," an inspired match of Ravel's flowing music to their respective instruments that wove into the original some improvisation that didn't violate the idiom. It was one of the few successful attempts to give a jazz spin to a classical piece that I've heard in years.

When you focus on just two instruments in a jazz group, you can appreciate how well they are able to import variety and contrast all the more. In a performance of James Williams' "Soulful Bill," for example, the relaxed waltz feeling to the theme is able to take in an intensification that serves the tune well. Ozone's comping kicked this performance into high gear without pushing back against Burton's lyricism. Both players made a few of its phrases really pop toward the end, without damaging the unity of the piece's mood.

The one "American songbook" standard the duo offered was "I Hear a Rhapsody," but there was also an old jazz number associated with Benny Goodman that had both players taking flight. "Opus 1/2" gave special opportunity for Ozone to solo, paying tribute to his jazz pianist father — Goodman's no. 1 fan, according to Burton's introduction. This was a fleet swinger, so typical of the Goodman small groups, that Ozone made the most of, exhibiting nonstop virtuosity of ideas and execution.

Also fetching was a Burton original in tribute to Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine master of "the new tango" with whom the vibraphonist worked in mid-career. The duo shepherded the gentle tune astutely, fashioning a nice diminuendo, with some piquant harmonies at the end. For contrast in this well-designed program, there was a slow blues from Ozone's pen: "Test of Time," in honor of Oscar Peterson, had the duo digging deep and rocking the room, an effect heightened by a key change introducing Ozone's solo.                 

Before the boppish encore, the duo closed with Ozone's "Times Like These," a thoughtful composition with an expansive theme that offered both players lots of room to generate flurries of notes. This exquisite partnership will move on to Japan soon for 10 gigs set up before Burton's decision to retire from music-making. After those performances, the influential musician-bandleader-educator will leave music for good, citing health reasons and thus indicating the good sense that has sometimes eluded other venerated musicians who continue well past their prime. Veneration for Burton will be held in place by performances maintaining his high standards to the very end.