Gary Burton Quintet: Whiz Kids (ECM 1329)

 

Gary Burton Quintet
Whiz Kids

Gary Burton vibraphone, marimba
Makoto Ozone piano
Tommy Smith saxophone
Steve Swallow bass
Martin Richards drums
Recorded June 1986, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This aptly titled date from the Gary Burton Quintet showcases two wunderkinds: saxophonist Tommy Smith and pianist Makoto Ozone. It was Chick Corea who recommended the up-and-coming Smith, just 18 at the time, as a Burton sideman. One year later, Smith was thrust into the ECM spotlight, bringing his robust tenor voicing to one of the finest outfits in the business. And speaking of Corea, one would be hard-pressed to find a more kindred spirit than Ozone, who at 25 was already a longtime phenom in his native Japan, and whose tutelage at Berklee led him to work with Burton.

These talents are showcased not only technically, but also compositionally. Smith leads the way with “The Last Clown.” This warm, nocturnal cityscape is the perfect appetizer for what’s in store. The space afforded to every musician is a testament to the group’s democratic flair. Those unmistakable vibes glisten like rain-slicked streets, Burton taking his sweet time to let every note sing, while Ozone deepens the proceedings with every key he touches. Yet the pianist shines brightest in his own two upbeat contributions. Of these, “La Divetta” shows the group at its finest and is honed to a formidable edge by Smith’s aerial attack and the breakneck pacing of drummer Martin Richards. The balance of Ozone’s “Yellow Fever” is invigorating to say the least. Burton shows off his mindboggling precision, as do Smith and Ozone, one cream to the other’s coffee. Both of these pay homage to Corea, whose tune “The Loop” caps off a diamond-solid set. A couple of rarities complete the picture. “Soulful Bill” is a lovely ballad that features an even lovelier bass line from Steve Swallow, who dances with his own quiet magic through a gallery of fine solos. And the mid-tempo “Cool Train” brings on the love tenfold, especially in its sweeping pianism, which here recalls Bruce Hornsby.

The themes on Whiz Kids are ripe, the playing even more so, and the recording pristine. This is a quintessential example of ECM’s tender side, perfect for those lazy afternoons during which dreaming is the best kind of travel. Sadly, this smooth-as-silk recording would mark the end of Burton’s 14-year run on ECM. All the more appropriate, then, that his selfless respect for new generations of talent should take center stage.