Interview on jazzreview.com

Jon Burr 

Bandleader And Diplomat 

Artist Interview by: Susan Frances

Bassist, composer, producer, arranger, and bandleader Jon Burr has learned to not only be an astute musician, but also to be an astute diplomat when it comes to dealing with other musicians, and bringing out the best from them.  His latest release is a CD/DVD set entitled Just Can’t Wait that features live footage of him on the upright bass, performing with his band for a special show at the Birdland in New York City.  Accompanying Burr on the recording are vocalists Hilary Kole, Laurel Massé, Ty Stephens, Yaala Ballin and Jon’s daughter Tyler Burr, in addition to saxophonists Houston Person, Bob Mintzer, Anat Cohen, and Joel Frahm; trumpeter Dominic Farinacci; pianists Ted Rosenthal, Jon Davis and Loston Harris; and guitarists John Hart, Yotam Silberstein, and Howard Alden.  Jazziz Magazine touted the release as, “This is a terrific recording.”

Burr has a liking for straight-ahead and improvisational jazz, and knows how to bring these textures out in his band.  Born in Huntington, Long Island, Burr studied at Berklee College of Music and the University of Illinois. He has toured and recorded with many great jazz masters, including Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Horace Silver, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, Stephane Grappelli (from 1986-1997), Sir Roland Hanna, Dorothy Donegan, and Buddy Rich.   From 1980 – 1985, he toured with Tony Bennett and has also worked with Lainie Kazan, Rita Moreno, Barbara Cook, Eartha Kitt, among others.  One can say that he has worked with the best, and learned from the masters on how to treat his band and bring out the best from them.  Burr reveals how Just Can’t Wait came together, and what makes it such a memorable project for himself and audiences.

JazzReview.com:  Why did you decide to make Just Can’t Wait a CD/DVD set?  Why did you want to include live footage of your band for this project?

Burr:  The CD invites a question from the perspective of a possible presenter: what would this project look like in performance? The CD was done over a period of time with diverse ensembles, many great musicians, but they’re not all going to get on a plane to go do some hall somewhere; it’s neither practical nor affordable.  This project is really about the songs, more so than the individuals, all of whom gave stellar, virtuoso performances. The songs have been performed with varying personnel, as can be seen on our YouTube channel, http://youtube.com/jbQMedia. The songs have proven themselves as platforms for the performers; the performers we’ve had the honor to work with have drawn inspiration from the material, and the energy has been fantastic in the band.  We were quite pleased with the way the DVD came out; with all the possible things that could go wrong, it not only went smoothly, but because the musicians involved had been involved in the recording and some other live performances, the spirit of inspiration visited that stage more than few times when the cameras were running, and it was quite exciting. The audience reaction gives a hint about how well it went.  Another reason to do video is YouTube; these days, the more chances to be seen and heard the better, and there’s nothing like a document of a live performance to give the viewer a real sense of the artist. There are other potential outlets for video that we are exploring, and are open to any and all opportunities to air this.

JazzReview:   How did you choose which songs to record for Just Can’t Wait?  What did you want to bring out in these compositions, especially where you added vocalists Ty Stevens and Hilary Kole?

Burr:  We recorded 18 titles altogether in this project, and used 14 of those on the CD, and a slightly different assortment from the 18 on the DVD. These songs represent my best work available at the time of the recording; I didn’t give any thought to marketability or anything else; the objective was to bring the songs to life, which we did.  The songs are an assortment of styles, and each suggested a stylistic approach best exemplified by particular individuals whose work I was familiar with. I’m grateful to all of the terrific performers who gave of their talents on this. Ty Stephens is one of the hardest-swinging singers I know and a great interpreter of a wide range of styles; Hilary Kole is a musician’s singer, can read and internalize anything, quickly, then make you cry with it by the third time through. Laurel Massé is another great talent, with a wisdom, gravitas, and refined dramatic sense about her. Yaala Ballin is a very progressive jazz interpreter with advanced phrasing that belies her years, with a youthful and distinctive sound on top of it. My daughter Tyler Burr is destined for a life on the boards; she lives and breathes musical theater, and she’s really good – especially at fifteen years old.

JazzReview:  What was the inspiration for the arrangement on “Snowfall”?  How did this track come together?

Burr:  Snowfall was written as an instrumental during a – you guessed it – snowfall  – :) back in 1992. It appeared on my first recording as a leader, “In My Own Words,” released in 1996 on the now-defunct Cymekob label. The thing gives it its particular quality is the suspended melody against the piano/guitar ostinato. It was originally more of a Latin-new agey thing, but the consulting producer I was working with thought it might sell more if we included a backbeat… so, the result is the product of a negotiation, but it works nonetheless. There’s a particularly strong collective improvisation between John Hart and Bob Mintzer on the CD, and Joel Frahm and John Hart on the DVD.

JazzReview:  When you were recording these tracks, were you influenced by other bass players or musicians about how to orchestrate these tunes?  How were the arrangements decided?

Burr:  There is minimal orchestration, really – the rhythm section is playing the parts, some of which have ostinatos, and the sax is playing obligato for the most part. We did a couple of 2-horn things when we had Mario Cruz and Dominic Farinacci on the date together – None of Them is You and Rainbow Over Harlem are two in particular. Mario was very helpful with the horn parts – we took the time to pick the right notes out of the chords. Most of the ostinatos, particularly the grueling guitar ostinato in Please Tell Me, I wrote.  The arrangements per se were dictated by the desire to keep all the cuts under 5 minutes, so we tried to find a logical place to come back in after a solo, for example, without necessarily having the whole song stated on the way out.  The project as a whole was greatly inspired by Charlie Mingus, who was a bassist/composer/bandleader. Mingus’ approach was a template for me in that he had a band, it was his music, but it was more about the writing and the whole sound of it than the individuals in particular. The main difference here is that my writing is songs, rather than jazz compositions or “tunes.”

JazzReview:   How did you meet your band members – Houston Person, Joel Frahm, Jon Davis, John Hart, and Anthony Pinciotti?

Burr:  I see that the question refers in particular to the personnel on the DVD.  I had a gig in Tarrytown with Mark Morganelli at a benefit for his Jazz Forum Arts Non-Profit, and Houston was on the gig as a sideman. We hit it off musically, immediately, and I was lucky to be able to get Houston to come and play on a couple of things. One result is that Houston has been calling me to play bass in his Quartet, which is an honor and privilege and has made me a better musician. On the day of the DVD taping, Houston had a football game he wanted to watch (if possible), so we grouped his titles together at the top of the show so he could get home for the game. Houston is the kind of player – and there aren’t many – who can lock in a band by playing 2 notes, his feeling is so strong and clear. Houston showed up, locked in my band, then put his horn in the case and went home, while the band took his inspiration and sailed the rest of the afternoon.  I’ve known Joel Frahm for years, but I ran into him on a gig of Hilary’s, along with Dominic Farinacci, and was lucky to find them both available to come in and play. Joel is astounding, with boundless fluency and literacy in a huge assortment of styles.  I met Jon Davis years ago, we did a gig together, and more recently ran into him when he subbed at the St Regis at a gig I was on. We always had a great time playing duo. I’ve been running into John Hart for years on gigs, and have found him to be incredibly versatile. The band’s library asks the guitar player to execute a wide variety of styles, and John is up to them all – and then some.  I met Anthony through Barry Levitt on the Iridium Sunday Jazz Vocal Workshop Brunch (no longer happening). We clicked musically immediately – Anthony can play anything on the drums at will, which is very good, but the thing that makes him special to me is that his ability to totally commit to what he’s playing is matched by his flexibility. He goes with the bass, and makes the bass sound good – he’ll meet you half way, and THEN some – there’s been a few times when he made me sound much better than I should have…! This characteristic, of being willing to bend a little to go with the bass at times, rather than trying to be a metronome, is a characteristic of the greatest drummers I’ve had the pleasure of playing with, including Louis Hayes, Billy Hart, Jimmy Cobb, Billy Drummond, Leroy WIlliams, Jimmy Lovelace, Jeff Hamilton, Butch Miles, Joe LaBarbera, Jerome Jennings, and many others. Dave Gibson is also in this category, and we were pleased to have him on the CD for some of the cuts.

JazzReview:   What is it like working with your daughter?  Do you treat her differently from the rest of your band?

Burr:  My daughter has been performing for years in musical plays in various contexts, and her training has given her a very professional approach. She has a dogged persistence in pursuit of quality and her best work. The only difference between working with her and the others on the project was that some of her feedback to me was a little more (ahem) “frank” than that I got from the others… diplomacy erodes in families, I suppose; this is not to say she was undiplomatic; it’s more a function of the high expectations she has of her father.

JazzReview:    What are rehearsals like before a show?  Does your band practice as a whole unit or does everyone have a personalized warm-up?

Burr:  The preparation for the Birdland gig consisted of doing the studio recordings and a couple of live gigs. We didn’t rehearse prior to the taping. When something comes up, we’ll have a rehearsal.

JazzReview:  How is performing live different for you from playing in the studio?  How are you different on stage from when you play in the studio?

Burr:  The audience is part of the performance, live. The idea that the audience inspires (or discourages!) a band is no mere abstraction; it’s like mob action in the sense that the audience and the band feel each other in a visceral way, and reinforce each others’ energy. The audience reaction at Birdland was a very real factor in the development of the performance that afternoon. All of the tempos have a bit more spark on the DVD, although it’s impossible to duplicate the quality of studio sound in a live circumstance.  The main thing I was worried about for the taping was the script that my consulting co-producer insisted that I use; I like talking about the tunes and connecting with the audience, but I am not an actor, and the use of a script was a major stress-producer for me. Other than that, once the song starts, my focus is on trying to play the bass and feed the band to the best of my ability. There was a certain amount of traffic direction regarding solo order that I could have done better on the taping, but overall it went very well.

JazzReview:   How have you grown as a musician, composer and bandleader over the years?  What have you learned from playing with other musicians?

Burr:  Wow. Well, the short answer to this is that over the years I’ve learned how to listen better and get more in touch with my body, and it’s a work in progress. When we’re learning music, so much of it is about ideas and concepts and the physical challenges of dealing with the instrument, and it can take a long time for these elements to come together. Over the last few years my studies have taken me in the direction of the structure of the mind; how awareness is the king, and consciousness and feeling are the servants, and can work in a co-equal fashion. I’m currently working on my fourth method book “Physical and Mental Programming for the Improvising Bassist” that delves into these issues.  I’ll never forget hearing Milt Jackson say “music is sound and feeling,” or when Ray Brown held up his left hand for me and said, “sound,” then his right and said “time.”  I’ve learned recently that there are sixty thousand brain cells IN THE HEART. The body IS the “unconscious mind;” we have two brains, essentially, the “conscious” brain and the “feeling” brain, much of which IS the body. One can program the other; the idea is to get them working together.

JazzReview:   At what age did you begin playing the bass?  What was it about the instrument that attracted you to it?

Burr:  Around age 12 or so, I heard a Charlie Mingus record and loved the sound of it. I was also a rock guitar player’s kid brother, so I ended up starting electric bass back then too.

JazzReview:  What were your early musical experiences like?  How did these experiences help shape your style of playing?

Burr:  Some of your readers may know Clem DeRosa, who was one of the pioneers of Jazz Education. He came to my high school when I was in the 9th grade… Trumpeter John Marshall, now of the WDR Big Band in Koln, Germany, was also in that band. Clem had a big band in the summer (“The College All-Stars”) that played Trust Fund gigs around Long Island, and he had featured guests that included musicians Marian McPartland, Joe Newman, Benny Powell, Clifford Jordan, Bucky Pizzarelli, and many others that we youngsters got a chance to play with. I’ll never forget hearing Linc Milliman, and later on Larry Ridley and Buddy Catlett, with Marian’s trio. I have a “psychic snapshot” of Linc playing with Marian that stays with me to this day. Michael Moore was another McPartland alumnus who was very influential to me in the early days; they came to Boston when I was at the Berklee summer program, and I went down every night, heard Mike, talked to him, and they would have me sit in.  I went down to hear Mingus in the spring of 1969 at the age of sixteen, bearing a hello to him from Clem DeRosa, who had recorded with Mingus some years prior to then. I saw Mingus in the back hallway, and presented the “hello” I was carrying, and he asked me what I played… I said “bass” and  Mingus said “play the next set!” I didn’t know enough to refuse. Wow. THAT was an experience – after the set, Charles MacPherson said on the mic, “It’s good to see young people coming up RIGHT!”

JazzReview:   What made you decide to become a bandleader?  How is being a bandleader a natural extension of your personality?

Burr:  After working with a lot of people over the years, it became clearer and clearer that the only way to be able to implement my own musical vision or songs (or however you want to say it) was to get my own band. There are a few leaders who had played my stuff, Chet Baker and Stan Getz among them, but I had it in mind to record these songs and the only way to do it was to do it.  In most of the bands I’ve worked with, it’s about the leader; if there’s a singer, for example, the forms are usually contained, there’s not a lot of blowing, and when there is it needs not to overwhelm or upstage the singer or the leader, or whoever. There’s an effective “lid” on the music put there by the presence or direction of whoever the leader might be… There are a number of bass-led bands out there, playing some very interesting music; not everybody wants to hear a whole lot of bass… but in my band the leader is essentially a sideman – I’m more of the “sideman-in-chief” in my band, although because I do pick the program, personnel, and count off the tempos, it is my band, without a doubt… Except, in my band, I’m there to drive whoever has the spotlight at the moment. The band is powered from the bottom up, and the understanding is that the singer will sing the living daylights out of the song, and then the soloist will go on and PLAY. We also do a fair number of collective improvisations on the forms. The songs drive the band more than anything else.

JazzReview:  Who are some bandleaders that you have admired and learned from?

Burr:  I mentioned Mingus before as an inspiration for a bassist/composer – led band. Of the people I worked with, those who I admired the most as bandleaders include Stephane Grappelli, who was an egalitarian, the first among equals in his band; Roland Hanna, who had a bit of Mingus in him, challenging his sidemen musically to go on and PLAY. The bandleader I learned the most from was Horace Silver; although Roland Hanna was also a composer, Horace is a bandleader who plays his own music exclusively, and his expectations of his bass player were very formative for me.

JazzReview:   Do you have plans to perform anywhere live this summer?  If so, where and if not, where would you like to play?

Burr:  One disadvantage of this project is that the ensemble is fairly large (five pieces plus two vocalists), and consequently would be expensive to tour, putting it out of reach for many smaller clubs. We would love to be able to play in festivals and arts centers; we have been making overtures in those directions. Given the state of the economy, the idea of touring this project is looking very challenging at the moment. It will take some time for awareness of this project to grow to the point that we will be a sure bet for presenters; original music can be a tough sell, even though this music is accessible, melodic, and “feels like standards,” according to the reviews (http://jonburr.wordpress.com/category/reviews/) we’ve been getting. We are ever hopeful…

JazzReview:  Do you feel that the Internet has changed the way that musicians are exposed to the public, and the way that the music industry does business today?  How have you found the Internet to be a resourceful tool to expose your music to others?

Burr:  I don’t think that there’s any question that the internet has changed the music business, and radically. It remains to be seen how the whole thing shakes out; many aspects of the old way of doing business have been flat-out destroyed. Retail shelf space is shrinking by double-digit percentages annually. It is possible for just about anybody to sell music online these days, and there are interesting means evolving for getting exposure. Keywording of music, that is affiliative exposure by keywords or other attributes, has always been effective; in jazz, the “formula” for upcoming artists had been to hire “names” for your project and record at least some standards; both of these are forms of “affiliative marketing.” Nowadays, the idea extends to themes and tributes, given the lack of resources and will for the business to invest in building “names” for emerging artists. They are “tributing” people who aren’t even dead yet these days! There are a number of interesting sites that offer opportunities for exposure via “keywording;” internet radio stations like last.fm and Pandora, and iTunes’ “genius” feature all offer these possibilities, affording the listener the ability to sift through millions of titles to find music that fits a particular set of criteria, e.g. “sounds like Sinatra meets Weather Report” that he might otherwise not have heard in former times.  One problematic development over recent years is the growing use of Arbitron by public radio. There was a time when the implied “contract” between radio and the listener was: “we, radio, will give you free music. In exchange, you have to listen to ads and allow us to expose you to new music.” Nowadays, jazz has become institutionalized and listener-driven. Stations are afraid of alienating their listeners, so are inclined to give them stuff that’s “proven.” It would be interesting for someone to do a doctoral thesis on the percentage of living versus dead artists getting played on jazz radio – with this prejudice throughout our culture toward the proven and the safe, it puts jazz in jeopardy of becoming the “music of the dead,” and discourages innovation and creative effort throughout our society.  As social media such as Facebook and Twitter gain in numbers, the possibilities for ever-growing networks and rapid dissemination of information become more and more promising. It’s possible now for an established act with tens of thousands of followers to update their fans on their every move – including new releases, etc – in real time with no marketing expenses to speak of. There’s great potential there.. It’s going to be very interesting to see what develops. I’m on twitter now – follow me at http://twitter.com/jonburr and let us keep you posted!

For more information: www.jonburr.com 

 


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