Bettye LaVette and Gary Burton play the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival this weekend at Saratoga Performing Arts Center as rejuvenated elders. Now 63 and 66, respectively, both became stars while young, making very different kinds of music, but both fit comfortably in the festival lineup.
LaVette sings soul music on Sunday, while Burton leads the Gary Burton Quartet Revisited on Saturday, a reunited jazz band not unlike drummer Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band revisiting Miles Davis’ 50-year-old “Kind of Blue” album (Saturday) or pianist/composer Dave Brubeck celebrating (on Sunday) his 50-year-old “Time Out” album.
LaVette attributes her being discovered at 16 and making her first records as just right place, right time. “It was all very sudden,” she said last week from her New Jersey home. “It was just what could happen to you if you were on the streets of Detroit in 1962, and I was.”
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Burton was younger, just 6, when his parents found his first teacher — “a lady that lived in the neighborhood who gave lessons on the marimba and the vibraphone,” he recalled last week from home in Florida. “I didn’t choose it; it was just what was available in my small town in Indiana.”
LaVette recorded song after song for labels large and small (Atco, LuPine, Karen, Calla, Big Wheel, SSS International), but her 1972 album “Child of the Seventies” (recorded in 1972 in Muscle Shoals for Atlantic) was shelved for more than 30 years while she retreated from the big time — or vice versa — to play small clubs and enjoyed some big-city spotlight time playing in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” on Broadway alongside Cab Calloway.
She said her longtime manager, Jim Lewis, “made me the artist that you see before you today. He said, ‘You don’t know whether or not you can depend on becoming a star, but if you want to sing for a living, you will have to learn how to be very entertaining and you will have to learn a lot of songs.’ ”
Meanwhile, Burton took the academic route to artistic development, at Boston’s Berklee College of Music after playing sessions in Nashville and clubs in New York. He had to major in piano because Berklee had no vibes teacher then. He played Bill Evans-inspired piano in a trio at night to pay the rent while extending his pioneering four-mallet vibes style in Berklee’s many ensembles during the day.
“When I came along, nobody was playing with four mallets,” he said, noting the huge influence of two-mallet player Milt Jackson. “I had only started doing it because there was nobody to play with [in his small Indiana hometown] and the music sounded empty. I needed to make it sound more complete. I wanted some harmony, and I wanted it to sound like the tune was all there.”
While Burton became a successful bandleader fronting a series of quartets, touring the world and recording on major record labels, LaVette often worked with just pianist/musical director Rudy Robinson and recorded only sporadically for years. Her fierce singing style, huge repertoire and total commitment to her songs won her fervent fans; many in fact remain personal friends to this day.
“My fans were so few that, at one point, even all over the world, they were my personal friends because they were the only people who knew me or knew anything about me,” she said. “Every audience that I appeared before, I collected either that audience or some people from that audience.”
When I saw her sing at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, she collected everybody in the Jazz Tent with a triumphant performance.
“If you do something all the time for 48 years, you become more proficient at it,” she said. “So I would like to think that it isn’t something that can be taught; it’s something that’s acquired.”
Burton acquired his skills onstage, in the studio and from his students. Even while touring and recording actively, he has taught at Berklee, eventually becoming dean and retiring recently as executive vice president after 33 years there.
“Every teacher will tell you that we learn as much from the students as they learn from us,” said Burton, who recommended the young guitarist Pat Metheny for a teaching job there in 1973 and hired him then for his quartet. When Metheny was asked to lead different ensembles at the Montreal Jazz Festival last year, he invited Burton to reunite the 1970s quartet.
Burton agreed only because he thought it would be just for one concert. When none of the original drummers were available (they really wanted Roy Haynes), they brought in Metheny’s drummer, Antonio Sanchez, who was 3 years old when Metheny had joined Burton’s band in 1973. Original bassist Steve Swallow returned to complete the quartet.
“We thought it would be fun to do this just one time,” Burton said. “But it was more fulfilling and interesting than we had imagined.”
Their third tour brings them to SPAC on Saturday and they’re working on a second album to follow “Quartet Live,” released this year.
“It’s hard to say at this point how long this is going to continue, being a current thing,” said Burton. “But so far, we’re feeling real positive about it.”
Like the 1970s-vintage, reunited Gary Burton Quartet that has achieved both unexpected momentum and predictable acclaim, Bettye LaVette is enjoying a remarkable renaissance.
“Six years ago, I was working in a place in Detroit that was very small and doing three one-hour sets for 50 dollars a night,” she said. “And now I’m not,” she added with a big laugh.
“There were a lot of things that happened at one time,” she said, citing the release of her “A Woman Like Me” album, winning a W.C. Handy Award for it, and being signed by a new booking agency. “That allowed me to appear on festivals where no one had ever heard me, but when I finished the show, they had.”
Most important of all, those live shows persuaded the alternative rock/alt-country label Anti to record and release her “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” with producer Joe Henry, “Scene of the Crime” with producer Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers and a third album she’s just started to prepare.
Both “Hell” and “Crime” jumped on many Top 10 lists, including mine; and she has since sung at President Obama’s pre-inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, at the Kennedy Center Honors (doing “Love Reign O’er Me” in tribute to the Who), and with Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at Radio City Music Hall.
“What you have to remember is that while [the Beatles] have become legendary idols, whether I made any money or not, I felt myself in competition with them for 40 years,” said LaVette. “They’ve just won,” she noted with a wry laugh.
Does her resurgence feel like a dream come true, or like it’s about damn time? “I pretty much felt like it was about damn time,” she replied, explaining that her belated success brings more a sense of relief than of surprise.
“I’m a song stylist, and it took me a very long time to learn how to be that,” she said. “And I’m very glad that people are acknowledging me for that, as opposed to for being cute, or being a good dancer.”
When I suggested that she has those things going on, too, she laughed and sang out, “Oh, help me!”
She said, “Hopefully, baby; I’m trying to hold it together. I’m trying to hold it together until the last person who hasn’t seen me sees me.”
The Gary Burton Quartet Revisited plays Saturday afternoon at the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at SPAC, and Bettye LaVette sings on Sunday afternoon there.
New album for Gaudet
Jim Gaudet and the Railroad Boys release their tremendous new album “So Far So Good” on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Hibernian Hall (375 Ontario St., Albany). Don’t let the modest title fool you: Gaudet writes from a wide-screen perspective incorporating Woody Guthrie’s populism and restlessness; Hank Williams’ tenderness, toughness and twang, and echoes of Gaudet’s contemporaries Alejandro Escovedo, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen. Yeah, it’s that good — in the writing, singing and playing. Phone 438-8230 for more information.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]