Vibraphonist Gary Burton and keyboards player Chick Corea knew each other a little, but they had never before played together when they teamed up for an impromptu jam at a jazz festival at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
"We were both on the program, and when the organizers went around and asked the musicians who were at the festival if they would participate in a jam session for the finale of the show, only me and Chick agreed," Burton said recently via phone from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he has lived for the last 10 years.
"We quickly rehearsed some songs we could play. One of the songs was 'La Fiesta,' which we still play to this day. Chick had just written it at the time. As it turned out, we had one of the best receptions of any of the performers that night. The audience loved it."
At the festival was Manfred Eicher of Munich-based ECM Records, then a relatively new and still unproven label. Eicher "asked us to make a record, and six months later, we were in the studio," Burton said.
The result was the pair's now-classic debut, Crystal Silence.Corea and Burton are celebrating their 40th anniversary as a duo and their seventh collaborative album, Hot House, with their latest tour, which visits Tucson this Saturday for a UApresents concert at the Fox Theatre.
Not only was the duo immediately compatible on stage, but they also found right away that they worked together easily in the studio. When making Crystal Silence, Burton and Corea had allotted three days for rehearsal and recording. But they only needed a fraction of that time, Burton said.
"We figured we would finish two or three songs a day. We showed up in the studio, and immediately decided to try recording a song. We were done in one take. That was good, so we moved on. We finished the whole thing in three hours. I think we did two takes on 'Señor Mouse,' and all the others we finished in one take."
Burton and Corea have played together each year since, no matter what other projects they have participated in.
Corea, now 71, began playing piano when he was 4. His career began in the early 1960s, when he played with artists such as Mongo Santamaria, Blue Mitchell, Herbie Mann, Sarah Vaughn and Stan Getz. He joined Miles Davis' band in the late '60s and played on such legendary albums as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.
Although Corea often plays acoustic and Latin jazz, he helped pioneer jazz fusion with his groups Return to Forever and the Chick Corea Elektric Band. He also has played with Michael Brecker, Paul Motian, Christian McBride, John McLaughlin, Kenny Garrett, Herbie Hancock and Béla Fleck.
Burton, a self-taught vibes player, began playing as a teenager in the late 1950s. An early mentor was saxophonist Boots Randolph, who lived near Burton in southern Indiana. Randolph took the 17-year-old Burton to Nashville and introduced him to country guitarist Hank Garland.
Burton subsequently played on Garland's groundbreaking 1961 jazz recording, Jazz Winds From a New Direction. Around that time he also performed with such country legends as pianist Floyd Cramer and guitarist Chet Atkins.
"The thing I discovered was that country music has always had a big relationship with jazz. The concept of being a hot improviser exists in country music as well as in jazz, so a lot of those country guys study jazz closely," Burton said.
He further explored that relationship on his 1966 album Tennessee Firebird, which combined jazz-rock with country and bluegrass. Burton has led many of his own groups, and has played with, to name a few, George Shearing, Pat Metheny, Stephane Grappelli, Keith Jarrett, Carla Bley, Steve Lacy and B.B. King.
Originally inspired by such vibraphonists as Red Norvo, Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, Burton is now considered one of the masters of his instrument. He also has been largely responsible for popularizing the use of four mallets, rather than the traditional two.
"When I started playing, people told me it was too hard to play with four mallets, that it wasn't worth the trouble. But I needed to have that harmony. It's not really that hard once you get used to it. Now, I'd say two-thirds of all vibes players under 60 play with four mallets."
Corea and Burton have won more than a dozen Grammy Awards between them, including four for their work as a duo. They are nominated for three Grammies this year for their latest collaboration, Hot House, which highlights music that was happening when they both began their careers in the 1950s and '60s.
The new album includes compositions by Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Bill Evans, as well as the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." The only tunes not conforming to the theme are the opening and closing tracks: the 1930s-era standard "Can't We Be Friends" and a new tune by Corea, "Mozart Goes Dancing."
Also on Hot House is Dave Brubeck's "Strange Meadow Lark." Burton proudly noted that Brubeck got a chance to hear Hot House before he died last month at 91.
"We got a nice letter from Iola, his wife, that was written a week before he died. It said he had listened to the record and really liked the interpretation we did of his song, and the whole record. Now, that letter is one of my prized possessions."
Burton, who will turn 70 on Jan. 23, said working with Corea has been the most enduring and satisfying partnership in his career. When they get together to tour, they need only minutes to get up to speed.
"Even if we haven't played together for six or eight or 10 months, we'll just allow an extra-long sound check at that first concert. It takes about 10 minutes before we feel like no time has passed at all."
Their rapport is extraordinary, Burton said.
"If I were to rate it on a 1to10 scale, I would say most of the musicians I have played with are a six or a seven. With Chick, it has always been a 10. And it was that way immediately."
The duo format offers a unique method of musical communication, he said.
"If you're playing alone, it's like you're giving a speech. And if you're in a group, you are part of a good discussion, with lots of lively side conversations going on. But if you are in a duo, it's like having an intimate conversation with one of your best friends. You finish each other's sentences; you can tell what the other person is thinking; you know when to speak and when to listen."