Why Philly pianist George Burton waited 15 years to make his debut

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George Burton | photo by Zoran Jelenic | courtesy of the artist
George Burton | photo by Zoran Jelenic | courtesy of the artist

George Burton’s résumé is indisputably impressive: he’s worked with jazz notables including Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Wallace Roney, and James Carter; accompanied pop artists including Meshell Ndegeocello and Patti LaBelle; he’s been the pianist for Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir and the Sun Ra Arkestra and soloed with the Philly Pops and in Leslie Burrs’ opera “Vanqui.”

One thing the Philly native hadn’t done until now is record an album under his own name. That’s usually the first order of business for a musician leaving college for the competitive jazz scene, hoping to establish their reputation or least create a handy calling card to help land gigs. Since leaving Temple University in 2000, though, Burton has never lacked for work. Whether through the connections he made in the hothouse Ortlieb’s environment of the late ‘90s, where he was a regular, or simply through his own hard-won reputation for invention and adaptability, he simply hasn’t felt the need to record for recording’s sake.

Not that he hasn’t tried on occasion. “I’ve actually recorded my own stuff a bunch of times,” he says, “but it always felt and sounded like just another jazz album. It was boring in the sense that it was just a bunch of tunes, even if everybody played great on it. The music didn’t really get to where I wanted to get, so I waited.”

Released last week through saxophonist Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music label, The Truth of What I Am > The Narcissist is well worth the wait. Wildly diverse but conceptually cohesive, the album absorbs influences ranging from the expected jazz sources to hip-hop and electronic music to forward-thinking artists like Björk, Sigur Rós and Radiohead. Despite that range, the album never feels like someone just hit “Shuffle” on their iPod, maintaining a consistent voice coupling jazz intensity with hard-driving grooves and adventurous melodic ideas.

“I wanted to cover a lot of territory,” Burton says. “I’ve played and play in so many different types of settings, I didn’t think that trying to have one continuous sound throughout the whole entire album would clearly represent who I am. I was really adamant about making sure that I could cover all the bases but making sure that it all worked together so that each tune goes into the next without making you think, ‘Oh, now he’s playing a hip-hop tune, or now he’s playing a Latin groove.’ I wanted it to be an album.”

Burton’s Ortlieb’s days are well-represented on the album, with saxophonist Tim Warfield on nearly half the tracks and trumpeter Terell Stafford adding his lyrical trumpet to the ballad “In Places.” Both were fellow mainstays of the NoLibs club’s storied jam sessions, while drummer Wayne Smith Jr.’s relationship with Burton dates back to their high school days. When Burton drops into South on Saturday to celebrate the album’s release, he’ll be joined by Warfield and Smith, along with Chilean bassist Pablo Menares and Boston-based trumpeter/educator Jason Palmer. The session was produced by Burton’s Temple classmate Derrick Hodge, notable for his own Blue Note releases as well as his work as a bassist with everyone from Terence Blanchard to Common.

The mouthful of an album title was inspired by a quote from one of jazz’s most original and irreverent thinkers, Charles Mingus, who said that “In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.” It’s applicability to the amorphously creative Burton is obvious, but take note of the punctuation in that title: that’s a “greater than” symbol, meaning that the pianist is pointing out the fact that getting to that truth of which Mingus spoke is much more important to him than self-absorbed narcissism.

“As a person I’m always changing and growing and trying to figure out who I am,” Burton says. “As a player I’m always playing with different people and in different situations. At every gig, I’m never sure what’s going to happen. In today’s culture, it’s become a ‘me’ society with selfies and all that, and I don’t really get it. I don’t want things to be all about me. So trying to figure out who I am and changing all the time is better than the person that’s all about themselves.”

The latter is a hard temptation to resist for a first-time leader, often anxious to show off their chops to the detriment of the music – another reason why Burton waited to make his debut. “Growing up, I knew all these cats my age who put out their first album and it was cool but it sounded like a bunch of kids playing,” he says. “Then I’d hear albums by the older crowd and they sounded like grown people who have lived life a little bit. I’ve never really felt like there was an urgency for me to have a record. I just wanted to get it right.”

George Burton headlines SOUTH on Saturday, October 22nd with sets at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

 

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