Graded on a Curve:
Gary Burton,
The Groovy Sound
of Music

I have never seen a musical situation so dismal that it couldn’t be made worse by the arrival of a vibraphone. Its insufferably bright, chipper, and laid-back tones are, to people (like myself) with highly strung nervous systems, a form of Chinese water torture. I recently watched a mid-seventies Frank Zappa concert on television and my chief takeaway was that Frank Zappa is a pretentious, smirking twit, which to be honest I already knew. But, and this is important, it was Ruth Underwood’s “vibes” that made me turn the television off. I thought I was going to go mad.

The vibraphone is—and this is a gross simplification—a motorized advance on the marimbas, and dates back to the mid-Twenties. And the demoralizing thing is that when I wrote about my hate for the instrument on Facebook numerous people wrote to tell me I was full of shit, which naturally led me to the conclusion that I have a more highly developed sense of musical taste than they do.

To me vibraphonists are committing a hate crime in the name of art by means of felt-tipped mallets, and the terrible fact, the unconscionable fact, is that they are destroying lives with their felt-tipped mallets, which they invariably use in a “cool jazz” context that is anathema to anyone who prefers their jazz loud, hard, and preferably free. For people such as yours truly vibraphonists with their felt-tipped mallets are not musicians at all but rather the producers of a sound that leads inevitably to universal moral decay and from universal moral decay to insanity and imbecility and ultimately to the end of everything. But perhaps I exaggerate.

The list of notable vibraphone criminals is a long one, and includes such hallowed names as Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Cal Tjader, and Bobby Hutcherson. But the most ruthless and lacking in pity for the unutterable suffering of humanity is Gary Burton. Burton is an innovative giant of the instrument, in so far as he was the first vibraphonist to realize that he could double the pain he was inflicting on the feckless ears of the world by wielding four mallets (in what has been described as a “pianistic technique” inspired by pianist Bill Evans) instead of two. And to add to his resume as a bad human being he is also credited as one of the founders of jazz fusion.

Since the early 1960s Burton has released dozens upon dozens of solo albums, played as a sideman with the likes of saxophonist Stan “the Sound” Getz and British jazz pianist George Shearing (to name just two), and appeared on rock albums by the likes of Eric Clapton, Bruce Cockburn, Howard Jones, and k.d. lang, who has had a long and illustrious career despite the fact that she suffers from e.e. cummings disease. In short he’s been around, very around, too around, sowing misery wherever he goes like a monstrous Johnny Appleseed.

1965’s The Groovy Side of Music is a particularly egregious example of the artistry of Gary Burton, that is unless your idea of a groovy time is listening to vibes-heavy jazz interpretations of songs from Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s 1959 Broadway musical The Sound of Music. Such people exist. I vaguely remember watching the movie version of The Sound of Music as a kid because I’d heard it had Nazis in it and I wanted to see the Von Trapp family mow them down with machine guns, but I walked away disappointed.

And I was aghast at the the music, which I hated almost as much as I hated the Nazis. But jazzing the songs on The Sound of Music makes sense—jazz has always found inspiration in the popular song. I’ve never much cared for the phenomenon: I love John Coltrane to death, but I can’t listen to his interpretations of “My Favorite Things” (guess where it comes from) and “Greensleeves.” And they’re manna from heaven compared to the version of “Edelweiss” on The Groovy Sound of Music.

Burton found himself a mixed bag of sideman for the album. Phil Woods was an excellent alto saxophonist/clarinetist with solid bona fides and avant garde leanings. Joe Puma was a solid guitarist but never consorted with A-List players. Hardly second rate, but no Larry Coryell. Bassist Steve Swallow is no slouch and is best known for his work with Carla Bley and Burton. Valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer established a solid reputation as a member of Gary Mulligan’s quartet. As for drummer Ed Shaughnessy, he hung with trumpet player Doc Severinson and was a member of The Tonight Show Band. A solid band, in short, but hardly the stuff of greatness.

To his credit, Burton was not particularly happy with The Groovy Sound of Music—unhappy enough, in fact, to threaten to sever his relationship with RCA Records. He loathed the arrangements by composer/arranger and fellow vibraphonist Gary McFarland, calling them “conventional and uninspiring.” And he’s right. He was also mortified by the album’s title and cover art, but about that he was dead wrong—I happen to think they’re the best things about the album.

The Groovy Sound of Music is lively, bright, more than a bit square despite its every effort to be hep, sophisticated. and (aside from the occasionally mawkish orchestral arrangement) impeccably tasteful. Its players seem out to outdo one another in terms of good taste and refinement. It’s classy and should only be played at swank cocktail parties. If one of the players, whether accidentally or out of a perverse but welcome desire to sabotage the proceedings, were to play so much as one discordant note, the entire album would explode.

Its laid-back grooves are designed to relax, not cause heart palpitations. This album has never killed anyone, although it does provoke homicidal ideation in individuals who look to music to challenge them, not mellow them out like aural Valium. It’s some of the whitest jazz I’ve ever heard. You’ll either “dig it” or you won’t depending on your jazz orientation. There is “cool” jazz and there is “hot” jazz and this jazz is cooler than the frigid air of the upper Alps. If you’re a cool jazz aficionado with a weakness for show tunes this is your lucky day. If you’re not it’s a tour through hell in a glass-bottom boat.

You get all of the best known songs from The Sound of Music starting with “Climb Ev-ry Mountain,” an inspirational number marred by McFarland’s very un-hip orchestral arrangement. The orchestra dominates the song, hangs over it like an alpine peak, and it isn’t until Burton comes plinking and plonking in to the accompaniment of the swinging and cymbal-heavy drumming of Shaughnessy that we get away from the melody and hear some light-handed improvisation. The further they get away from the song’s melody the more I can breathe, but every time I begin to breathe the orchestra returns, like a ghastly, unwanted guest, to make a botch of things. Not an auspicious beginning. Burton’s vibes open and dominate “Maria,” which is fortuitously McFarland free. Woods plays some quite nice soaring bebop on the alto while Brookmeyer is more restrained, and I’m willing to admit that while this stuff isn’t to my tastes I can (almost) understand the appeal.

McFarland’s orchestral stylings return on “An Ordinary Couple” and they’re awful, the playing by all is restrained, and other than the nice percussion touches that add just a touch of muscle to Burton’s far too pretty playing and some occasional nice horn interjections the song is a colossal, suburban jazz bore. This reminds me of the music my mom used to play while doing her housecleaning, and I can only describe the effect on my nervous constitution as traumatic.

“My Favorite Things” opens with the saxophone of Woods, then Puma comes in to play the song’s very irksome main figure on guitar. Then Burton comes in and goes mildly wild, the emphasis there being on “mildly.” But once again Shaughnessy’s drumming really swings, even through a long, competent and really rather stodgy valve trombone solo by Brookmeyer. Then Puma plays one incredibly tasteful solo, once again hewing to the song’s main melody. Things could be worse.

“Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is a mixed bag—I like its opening martial swing, but the orchestral arrangement kills the song like Raid kills bugs dead. It’s so Squaresville you’ll blanch, and while the regimented horns add pizazz and Burton’s playing is of course unimpeachable there’s no getting over the song’s bland conventionality. This is the kind of thing that gives jazz, one of the greatest gifts America has ever bequeathed to the world, a bad name—when I think of jazz I think of artists pushing up against the walls of the possible, of people like Lester Young and Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus and Sun Ra and John Coltrane and Max Roach and Miles Davis and so many others. The is tame, tepid stuff, so much warm bath water for people who don’t want to be challenged but rather to soak their ears in lukewarm sound. Burton did so much more, despite the innate horribleness of his chosen instrument, but on songs like “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” you’d never guess it—this is nice and pretty music for people who like their music nice and pretty.

“Do-Re-Mi” is the best track on the album because it’s the most straightforward track on the album—a solid if lightweight slice of easy-listening bop free of the weight of McFarland’s loathsome orchestral encumbrances. I may not like Burton’s long vibes solo but there’s no denying his mastery of the instrument or the fact that the solo is a stellar piece of improvisation. Similarly, Woods adds a lithesome touch, while Brookmeyer keeps things down to earth. On “Edelweiss” Burton takes a solo turn, and it’s pretty beyond words. That is not a compliment. Burton’s playing is impeccably tasteful, impeccably restrained, and impeccably unbearable to anyone who loathes the instrument.

“Edelweiss” is a masterful demonstration of Burton’s unimpeachable virtuosity, and a testament to his improvisatory genius, but he’s playing a torture instrument. Closer “The Sound of Music” is ruined, razed to the ground and the earth salted, by McFarland’s odiously pedestrian and utterly unhip orchestral arrangement. This is mood music of the worst sort, the sound of the suburbs of Middle America, self-congratulatory and self-contented, and an aural sedative because as it turns out Middle America isn’t as contented as it would like you to think it is.

From its opening notes it reeks of conventional complacency, and if you think that things are going to change when Burton finally shows up on the scene to play the song’s oh so familiar melody you’re wrong because he’s immediately drowned out by a strings-laden cocktail lounge shuffle—could be a mamba or something, I don’t know—that reeks of conformity to an ideal that a certain breed of hipster celebrates as kitsch but is to any right-thinking individual the abominable product of an easy-listening aesthetic that I would never call the antithesis of jazz but would call its Platonic Nadir. If those self-same hipsters are laughing at it I get it, I suppose I’m laughing too, but my laughter is accompanied by a very real case of aesthetic nausea.

I concede that I’ve done Burton a disservice by choosing this album. He’s gone the avant-garde route, and I’ve been told that some of his fusion work is excellent. But the fact remains that the instrument he plays has, so far as I’m concerned, fatal limitations, only one of which—albeit the most important—is that I find its innate prettiness maddeningly annoying. And it strikes me as an innately conservative instrument as well, insofar as I can’t imagine anyone playing “noise vibraphone.” You can do wild and even “free” things on the instrument, and I’m even sure you can use it to delve into the realms of pure dissonance, although I find that hard to imagine.

Burton is an innovator and a great jazz musician but for the life of me I can’t think of any other great jazz musician I’d sooner flee a room to avoid hearing. With the possible exception of the host of other vibraphonists, of course. They’re a dangerous breed.


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