Gary Burton opened his first set at Birdland on Tuesday night with “Bud Powell” — a tune by his longtime collaborator Chick Corea, set at a boppish saunter. Standing behind his vibraphone, four mallets ablur, Burton seemed in his element, perfectly at ease. There was no indication that this was a historic engagement: he was kicking off his final week-long run in a New York club, as part of a Farewell Tour.
Burton, a seven-time Grammy winner and 2016 NEA Jazz Master, announced his retirement from performing just a few weeks ago, before going out on the road one last time. He spoke in the dressing room at Birdland — where he’ll be through Saturday night — about the unusual decision to step away from performing, as well as his deep musical connection with pianist Makoto Ozone, his duet partner during the tour.
Their set included jazz standards like “I Hear a Rhapsody,” and originals like Ozone’s “Times Like These” — the graceful title track to Burton’s 1988 album with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker and guitarist John Scofield. There was deep, flowing intuition on the bandstand, and a strong sense of true dialogue. Burton’s sound in the room was glowing and full, and his fluency and imaginative panache as an improviser made the evening’s context all the more bittersweet.
Jazz Night in America has been following Burton on his Farewell Tour, which will conclude in his home state of Indiana on March 17. Stay tuned for that episode, broadcasting later this year. For more about Burton, visit his website.