Pianist Chick Corea and Vibraphonist Gary Burton had originally first attempted to play together in the 1960s, but had found that it didn’t really work. Playing in a quartet, with the piano and the vibraphone both being chordal instruments, the two had a habit of getting in the way of each other and not really being able to play side by side.
A few years later in 1972, both men happened to be performing at the Munich Festival as solo acts, and as fate would have it ended up being the two artists at an after hours jam. Without a rhythm section, and just having the other to play off, somehow there was an instant on-stage rapport between the two musicians – a rapport that immediately caught the attention of the then-present Manfred Eicher. His ECM label, still only a few years old, had already gathered a solid reputation for its strong releases and played host to a small number of Coreas solo piano works, and Eicher heard in the two players a potential new take on an intimate chamber jazz that would be a perfect fit for ECMs clear and pristine sound capturing and production.
What would eventually be released as ‘Crystal Silence’ a year later was in fact recorded in just one day in November of 1972 in a studio in Oslo. Despite the strong and passionate enthusiasm for the music they had all produced, Burton, Corea and Eicher had very low commercial expectations for the album, expecting the prospect of a piano-vibraphone duet album to entice just a relatively small audience. The album in fact though went on to garner superb reviews and eventually sell almost 500,000 copies.
Featuring material largely written by either Corea or Burton’s musical partner, bassist Steve Swallow, the sole exception is Michael Gibbs darkness-tinged ballad ‘Feelings And Things’. Coreas classic ‘Senor Mouse’ opens though and immediately sets high expectations, with the two instruments combining to form melody, harmony and rhythm, and then throwing the roles between the two. Despite the structured and detailed music, both men move responsibilities throughout, with at times electric spontaneity. Chamber jazz it may be, but here we see equal parts gentle music with at other times playing that has huge energy.
‘I’m Your Pal’ is a great ballad piece played to perfection, with more than a hint of gospel, and ‘Falling Grace’ is elegant and lively - elsewhere ‘Arise, Her Eyes’ is the only version you’ll ever need of arguably Swallows finest composition. Corea also brings two Return To Forever pieces to the party and they shine joyously, but nothing is as strong here as the title track. Nine minutes of beauty and nuance create an outstanding soundscape that highlights that although the two shine individually plenty, it is their subtle and brilliant interactions that both creates a kind of singular intent and sound that really raises the bar.
Obviously, the magic and beauty here was a huge personal success for the two friends, and luckily they happened to be entirely wrong about its commercial appeal. Six years though would pass before Corea and Burton would reconvene in the studio together, this time though without the presence of Eicher, and in Sheridan, Oregon. Corea in the interim had become a leader in the jazz-fusion world with the electric quartet version of Return To Forever, before ending the band and creating more orchestrated sounding solo works on the Polydor label. ‘Duet’ however signposted a definite return to more acoustic interests, which would in turn result in a line of further ECM albums focusing on his piano trio and solo ideas.
The ‘Duet Suite’ opens the album that in fifteen-minutes reveals a solid number of twisting melodies delivered in unison and the two virtuosos’ ability to play more than just mere notes from a page. Coreas Spanish percussive way of playing the piano too comes more to the fore.
This time Burton brings just two Swallow tunes, ‘Radio’ with its elegant swing and a solo piano section that is in this reviewers opinion the highlight of the album, and ‘Never’, a softer gentler tune that shows just how good a blend the dueting partners here can achieve. Corea, bringing the lions share of the tunes including the freshly written ‘Song For Gayle’, donates two more Return To Forever pieces, that best show how the chemistry between them had improved since their first meeting. It also fully demonstrates the duos ability to improvise and create both individually and together - Burton would later say playing with Corea was just like “having a conversation with your best friend”.
Almost a whole year later, the two would perform in Zurich, recording the show as ‘Zurich, October 28, 1979’. Opening with the same piece that opened ‘Crystal Silence’, ‘Senor Mouse’ has even more energy and virtuosity, helping quash any doubters’ thoughts about just how in the moment the two studio works were.
For too long only available as a single disc, a good portion of the performance was cut out. Thankfully here we again get the whole performance across two discs, which importantly allows us to hear both men play solo pieces and also more crucially gives us the proper flow of the concert. Proper and due consideration of track sequencing can often improve an album, especially with a concert performance, and ECM have always been incredibly aware and astute in terms of generating the right ‘narrative’, in large part to label head Manfred Eicher and his personal involvement and enthusiasm in everything his label produces. The earlier one disc version was good. The re-insertion of Burton taking on ‘I’m Your Pal’ and ‘Hullo, Bolinas’, and Coreas’ captivating fourteen minute version of his own ‘Love Castle’ (originally just five minutes long) though, returns it to undeniably great.
Interestingly, as testament to the pairs growing collective skill and fell for the music, all of the tunes from the studio works are different and arguably for the most part better. The already sublime ‘Crystal Silence’ is somehow enhanced further, benefitting from a more percussive Corea, who donates three new tunes; the bright sounding ‘Tweak’ and ‘Mirror, Mirror’, and the bebop-esque ‘Bud Powell’, which interestingly would later become a Corea favourite for his acoustic groups. What really sets it so high though is its impeccable sound and capture of the instruments on-stage - making ‘In Concert’ a great and vivid live document of a duo that can really generate a strong sense of atmosphere.
This superb 4-disc box-set from the always high-calibre ECM collects these three duo albums recorded for the label. 1983’s ‘Lyric Suite For Sextet’ also recorded by the two isn’t included, it not being a duet performance like the other three and therefore thematically being very different (in truth it is also nowhere near as stellar a work as any of the three here). The pair of studio albums are as good as they have always ever been, boasting tunes, atmosphere and crystal clear sound in spades. For most though, it is the live album where the real money is, feeding off the audience the live set is just incredible, and for a long time only available in truncated form, here it is restored to full and deserved double-disc glory. Corea transforming the previous electric group piece ‘Love Castle’ from his earlier ‘My Spanish Heart’ into a lengthy expanded what can only be described as tour-de-force alone is worth this new chunk of gold, but this whole package is compellingly good.
Gary Burton and Chick Corea continue today, individually and with respective groups, to play and record at an incredible and productive rate. As a duo, and with each other and other players, they play together every year, although recordings of the two duetting are still small in number. ‘Crystal Silence – The ECM Recordings’ is a very welcome release at a very appropriate time, helping to celebrate both Manfred Eichers labels historic 40th birthday and also the musical pairing also nearing the same anniversary. Beautiful and daring, Burton and Coreas music is as fresh and moving today as it was on its original release.