Cheers from a packed room greeted Gary Burton as the veteran jazz vibraphonist took the stage for his first set at SPACE on Sunday while joking, “I thought for a minute I wasn’t going to be able to make it through the crowd.”
Joining Burton on stage were revered drummer Antonio Sanchez, most famous for his work with the innovative Pat Metheny Group; bassist Scott Colley, who has played with jazz legends such as pianist Herbie Hancock and guitarist Jim Hall to modern masters such as saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarist Adam Rogers; and 23-year-old guitar protégé Julian Lage, who first played with Burton at the age of 12. Burton’s dry (yet pleasantly humorous) disposition set the tone for a night full of exhibitions of both jazz chops and lyricism, as the formally-named New Gary Burton Quartet mainly played songs from their recent album Common Ground, released in June on Burton’s Mack Avenue label.
The band’s first set was full of power and energy: dynamics swelled, crashed and broke, punctuated by emphatic breaks. Burton produced amazing harmony with his four-mallet technique while Sanchez’s Afro-Cuban-flavored drumming rumbled beneath. Colley and Lage completed the extravaganza with solid grooving bass lines and rapid articulate statements, respectively.
The quartet seemed impeccably attuned to one another through time modulations and the resolution of explosiveness. Burton’s hard-swinging phrasing on “I Heard a Rhapsody” coaxed a rare moment of straight-ahead playing from Sanchez. On the same tune, Sanchez and Colley demonstrated (for the first of several times that night) how experts trade solos: Sanchez’s loud, sometimes flamboyant, solos contrasted with Colley’s more careful and precise playing – the former’s ability to transition to a softer touch while supporting Colley made the exchange all the more exciting.
NGBQ’s performance of Colley’s “Never the Same Way” demonstrated its unique multi-faceted sound. It gave Sanchez the opportunity to explore the potentials of his drum kit, so he created ambience by scraping his sticks across the edges of cymbals and muting the snare drum with one hand. Using his own solo as a vehicle, Lage brought the piece from a serene simmer up to the level of grooving powerhouse, with Sanchez providing funk-influenced beats with a clap-inducing effect. Also memorable was Lage’s “Etude,” an Afro-Cuban-oriented arpeggio workout that broke down into more high-speed soloing.
Despite the quartet's enthusiasm throughout the entire set, the Sanchez-penned "Common Ground" acted as both climax and closer. An up-tempo swing hybrid, this tune turned into an opportunity for Sanchez to assault his drums. While his characteristically crisp tasteful playing had occasionally become loud and raw, this extended solo became outright bombastic at times. Though, the crowd loved it and shared their appreciation while the quartet left the stage like rock stars.
If the first set was a demonstration of how to play with energy and flaunt their chops, the second set was the workshop on lyricism: the band focused on ballads and slow swing tunes in a more intimate setting, with most of the large crowd having left. The mellowed rhythm section gently rose and fell through dynamic levels behind Burton’s rich pedal-sustained vibraphone playing on “Late Night Sunrise.” Burton’s melodic tango composition “Was It So Long Ago?” reduced Sanchez’s rumbling to a soothing patter while Lage contributed tranquil Latin backgrounds. Colley and Sanchez went back and forth once again on “Did You Get It?” and this effort was even improved from the last. The feel-good song of the night was the soul-drenched ballad “In Your Quiet Way,” a Burton clinic for emotional playing.
Burton finished the night by giving features to Lage and Sanchez. Lage flitted lightly through an unaccompanied intro to “My Funny Valentine,” occasionally breaking up the melody with the incessant strumming of chords to a dissonant yet musical outcome. Sanchez kicked off a raging up-tempo rendition of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” with a solo smartly elaborating upon and combining three major rhythmic ideas. After a soulful rendition of “Test of Time,” the quartet left the stage, bringing the skillful jazz performance to a satisfactory close.