Corea and Burton make magic

  • Article by: BRITT ROBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2010 - 11:46 AM

For 38 years, Chick Corea and Gary Burton have been reading each other's mind.

Chick Corea, left, and Gary Burton

Photo: C. Taylor Crothers,

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One of the more profound, prolific and joyful partnerships in jazz history was begun in the summer of 1972 in Munich. That time and place will always be shrouded by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Olympics. But a jazz festival was also taking place in the city, and when the call went out for a closing jam session, vibraphonist Gary Burton and pianist Chick Corea discovered they were the only two who had agreed to play.

"We looked at each other, chuckled, and decided to do a duet," Burton recalled. "Chick quickly taught me one of his songs -- 'La Fiesta.' It was a big hit with the audience.

"We still play it. I played it last night," Burton said by phone from a Chicago hotel room last weekend.

As has happened every year since 1972, Burton and Corea have carved out time to perform some duets in concert. Their current tour stops in Minneapolis on Friday and Saturday for intimate gigs at the Dakota.

Patrons will be treated to a sort of musical telepathy that twirls and shimmers like rainbows from a prism, the mood ranging from playful to poignant, the notes by turns deft and tail-chasing, liltingly melodic or gently dissolving together in resonant harmony from the lingering force of Burton's four-mallet strokes and Corea's fingers on the ivories.

Neither musician can explain why their pairing is so synergistic.

"Maybe it's because we both play keyboard, came of age around the same time in Boston [Corea is 68, Burton 67] and have a lot of the same experiences and knowledge," Burton said, not sounding convinced by his answer.

"It's simpler than that: We enjoy it so much," Corea said in a quick phone call from the Chicago airport. "We fire each other up, challenge each other, have the same taste. Gary enjoys the things I like to do, and I enjoy wha he does.

"Each musician is a universe, or solar system, in a galaxy of their own. When I play [duets], I'm looking for common ground, concentrating on trying to make that other person sound good. I pay attention to what they are doing, not what I am doing. I am trying to inspire them. I would call it spiritual chemistry."

With Burton and Corea, it happens on a higher plane. "You have rapport with any musician you play with," Burton said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, it usually falls somewhere between a 3 and a 7. For the two of us it has been a 10 from Day One. And within 10 minutes of being together, we can be back in that groove, reading each other's mind."

"You've got to put what happens between us in the realm of magic," agreed Corea in his thick Boston accent. "Nothing is to be gained from trying to analyze why. I never do."

Test-driving new songs

But the pair have honed the mechanics of their process. Although both search for invigorating new material, Corea is responsible for nearly all of their original compositions, and the vast majority of the arrangements. Because Burton-Corea duets are commercially successful by jazz standards, they put out a new album every three or four years and play the material on the road as kind of a workshop.

"No matter how much you rehearse, you learn different things with an audience," Burton said. "It is like looking into someone's face when you are having a conversation; you know when you are getting your signals confused and when someone is with you."

The material the pair is polishing on this tour is typically wide-ranging. There are two songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, a fresh arrangement of the bop burner "Hot House," tunes by Thelonious Monk ("Light Blue"), Dave Brubeck ("Strange Meadowlark") and Kurt Weill ("My Ship") and a couple of new Corea originals.

Corea has noticed that their audience seems to be getting younger. Maybe it is because neither performer has lost either his youthful energy or his ambition to connect on a spiritual level.

After that first duet in Munich, the head of the ECM record label, Manfred Eicher, rushed backstage and told them they needed to make a record. "We thought that was a pretty esoteric idea -- who would buy a duet record?" Burton remembered.

But they hit the studio and recorded a now-classic album with a title that captures part of their essential popularity: "Crystal Silence." Thirty-eight years later, the crystal silence endures.

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