Talking with Philadelphia native George Burton about his creative evolution and homecoming to Chris’ Jazz Cafe on 5/31

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George Burton | photo courtesy of the artist
George Burton | photo courtesy of the artist

George Burton was a classically trained violinist and violist when he began high school, with aspirations to be “the next Pinchas Zukerman.” But he soon made friends with a number of peers who would go on to become jazz notables over the next several years: saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, drummer Johnathan Blake, pianist Orrin Evans.

“They were all into jazz and they were the cool kids, so I started playing jazz,” Burton recalls now. Having also studied piano from an early age at his parents’ behest – his mother was a violin teacher and his father a piano teacher, so he had a resource at home in either case – Burton found himself drawn to the keys in order to accompany his friends. By the time he graduated high school, his focus had shifted entirely. With parents versed in classical music and the church, it was uncharted territory. “Jazz was such a foreign concept in our house,” he says. “I didn’t grow up hearing anything like that; in our house it was either gospel or Stravinsky.”

Burton, now 35, has lived in New York City for the past decade and made a name for himself as a pianist playing alongside jazz greats including Wallace Roney, Donald “Duck” Bailey, Jack Walrath, and Odean Pope, and playing alongside such wide-ranging artists as Meshell Ndegeocello, Tia Fuller, Stacy Dillard, and Patti LaBelle. He’ll return home on Saturday, May 31 to lead his latest quartet at Chris’ Jazz Café. The band will feature his longtime collaborator Tim Warfield, Jr., on saxophone along with bassist Noah Jackson and drummer Corey Rawls.

Unlike those high school friends, however, Burton didn’t make the move to NYC immediately after high school. “I always feel like I’m one of the very few cats from my generation that actually stuck around,” Burton says. “I did most of my learning in Philly. So it’s always a major thing for me to come back and play and see what’s going on around the city and check out the kids who are coming up.”

Burton delayed his pilgrimage in order to attend Temple University, where he originally intended to major in music education. It was another recommendation from his musician parents, who encouraged him to establish a safety net in case the life of a professional musician didn’t quite work out. But trumpeter Terell Stafford, chair of jazz studies at Temple (and now also chair of instrumental studies, bringing both classical and jazz students under his purview) encouraged Burton to pursue jazz full time.

While attending classes at Temple by day, Burton also studied at the informal university that graduated so many jazz players of his generations – Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus. Burton regularly dropped in on the legendary weekly jam sessions at the Northern Liberties club (in its previous incarnation), where he was mentored by pianist Sid Simmons and organist Shirley Scott. “That was the Philly culture,” Burton says. “There were so many great musicians around, so many people to talk to who would show you things. I was bouncing around, trying to get as much information as I could. It was as easy as that.”

Those elders were so supportive, in fact, that they made sure that Burton continued to frequent the club even if they had to go the extra mile. Taking the subway or the bus home to his parents’ house in Mt. Airy wasn’t exactly convenient after the late-night jam sessions, so ultimately Burton stopped going altogether. “Sid called me and said he would give me a ride home anytime I would come,” he recalls. “It was such a nurturing, fostering environment.”

His first break came with saxophonist Odean Pope, who hired Burton for his Saxophone Choir ensemble – a position Burton continues to fill today whenever possible. “One of my first major jazz experiences was the first gig that Odean called me for,” Burton recalls. “He didn’t tell me who was on the gig, and I came to find out it was [saxophone giants] Michael Brecker and James Carter and Joe Lovano. I had to get my shit together really quickly.”

Stafford and Warfield were both fellow alumni and frequent guests at the Ortlieb’s sessions, which established a relationship that continues now in Burton’s current quintet. The trumpeter and saxophonist are longtime friends and frequent collaborators in a number of contexts, so bringing them into his own group was a no-brainer, Burton says. “They work so well together that it makes my life amazingly easy. I don’t have to tell them to do anything; they just figure it out on their own.”

About a decade older than Burton, Stafford and Warfield are known for a more straightahead style than the younger pianist, who folds influences from rock, soul and hip-hop into his music. The result, Burton says, is that the pair are forced to alter their styles ever so slightly in his band.

“With those two you kind of have to swing,” he says. “I asked Terell because I’m not a big fan of a lot of the trumpet players of my generation – I tend to think they’re kinda whiny. Terell has that big, strong sound, and when I want to hear trumpet, I want to hear trumpet. But the concept of a lot of the songs is a little bit different, a little bit out of the norm for what they’re known for doing. It’s applying that Philly sound over more modern chordal systems and ideas and forms. It’s a modern spin on a quintet.”

Burton’s other main focus is Group 5, which ventures further out with influences from modern rock artists like Sigur Rós, Radiohead, and Björk. The band features saxophonist Chris Hemingway, guitarist Craig Magnano, and drummer Wayne Smith Jr. Both bands will feature on Burton’s forthcoming CD, which he hopes to release late this fall.

The quartet that Burton will lead next weekend at Chris’ splits the difference between the two. It features Warfield but emphasizes those modern rock influences, exploring “more open spaces with sound and texture.” He’ll heavily incorporate looping, pedals, electronics and effects into the group, far more than he does in Group 5, where he leaves most of the gadgetry to Magnano. “With the guitar player,” he says, “one too many pedals becomes one too many headaches. I actually need less players on stage to actually have more space.”

The week after the gig at Chris’, Burton plans to begin releasing a series of live videos with his quintet recorded at Smalls Jazz Club in New York. Even with a new CD in the works, he feels these glimpses of the band at work in its natural habitat – i.e., live – will give listeners a better idea of the sound of the group.

And he’ll close out the year as he has for the past several, with his “Christmas Yule Log” project. The holiday-specific ensemble combines Burton’s trio with vocals and strings, returning him to his roots. “To tell you the truth, that’s probably my favorite project right now,” he says. “Christmas time comes around and gigs seem to disappear around that time of year, and growing up playing violin and viola I always wanted to do something with strings anyway. So I’ve gotten really into that – it just sucks that it’s only once a year.”

Tickets and information for George Burton Quartet at Chris’ Jazz Cafe can be found here.

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