One thing I’ve noticed while preparing for this interview is that you tend to remain pretty much clear-headed when discussing your work, the work of your colleagues and music in general, without trying to inject extra mystery into it. Do you think that de-mystification of the music-making process helps people to understand it more profoundly?

I think it’s my nature to want to be able to explain things, even things that are not music; it’s my personality. And especially about music, my instinct has always been to try to show people what I am doing, instead of making it seem more mysterious. I know a lot of musicians who if you ask them what do you think about that song and they give you some mystical answer; that’s what also brought me into teaching. You know, when young musicians would come up and ask me questions I would do my best to answer them with useful suggestions and information. First I started doing clinics, and I discovered that I did that well. I was good at putting the music information into words and that led me into teaching. So, in fact yes, I think that it’s been one of my missions in life to help my fans, and people in general understand how music works… That’s an amazing thing that we have this language of music and everybody likes music of some kind, not necessarily jazz but everybody relates to music and yet if you’re not a musician you don’t really know quite how it all works, why it is so enjoyable to us and so on. So, I’ve always explored this and wanted to share it with people.

You once mentioned that in terms of getting started, the vibraphone is the easiest instrument and Mr. Corea had also mentioned that it is quite a primitive instrument. Yet, it has an amazing legacy and I would like to kindly ask you to give us your take on the history of the vibes context wise, and where do you think you’ve picked it up and what direction do you think the younger musicians are trying to take it.

Well, I started on a vibraphone because of my parents. There happened to be a woman in the town where I was growing up who played it and gave lessons. I was six years old then and it was my parent idea to start with this particular instrument. It turned out to be a good fit for me. By the time I was a teenager I have discovered jazz and I was very excited about that. But sometimes I wondered, you know vibraphone was my first instrument and I never tried anything else, so maybe I should have been a trumpet player or a piano player. So, I tried other instruments. I got a trumpet, I tried to play some piano, flute for a while just to see if I felt some connection to these other instruments. But I kept coming back to the vibraphone as the one that really felt natural for me so finally I just accepted the fact that this is my instrument and this instrument has unusual history. It has a fairly small population of players and it’s almost exclusively just used in jazz music. All the famous vibraphone players have been jazz musicians and it has started with Lionel Hampton who, almost as soon as it was invented, around 1930 started playing it and made the first record in 1931. And over that first ten years he was the only one really playing it but he became so popular that it got established as the instrument. By the way the concept of the instrument has been around for centuries like African marimbas, also in Asia, in Thailand and Indonesia, they also had marimbas. So, the vibraphone is just really a modern version of that. Somebody got an idea, - let’s make a xylophone out of metal and see what that is like. It turned out to be a good fit for jazz. It has this mellow ringing sound that blends nicely with guitar, piano and other instruments. It’s mostly used in small groups. Hampton was the only one who really played with the big band but he didn’t play with the band, he was up front soloing and the band was playing behind him but it didn’t really blended into the instrumentation of the band. That’s one of the reason’s why most of the other players have stayed with the small groups; people like Milt Jackson, Red Norvo and the rest of us… The history is a little unusual because every generation gave birth to a major new name. Hampton, Norvo, Jackson, Cal Tjader, etc, then there was Bobby Hutcherson and me. Now, there should be another generation of players to emerge but, well, I’m sixty three and Bobby is sixty four I think… There should be somebody now who’s forty, and even somebody who’s twenty coming along to making names for themselves as vibraphone players and there are players but none of them have become really established at. And that is a surprise. Some of my musician friends ask me about it why is this so but I have no answer. Reasons? Well, not that I can think of. It’s not as if music has stopped growing or anything and there are some good players in the younger guys that I know but no one that has come along with a new style. In order to become a major name in jazz, you either have to invent a technical way of playing the instrument or you have to invent a new style, or both. Think of Coltrane or Pat Metheny… Any major player you can think of they either got a new technical thing or a style thing or both things. So, none of the new vibes player has done that yet. They either sound a little like me or they sound like Bobby or Milt or… They haven’t found a voice of their own yet or facility of their own. It’s kind of mystery to me and it must be to Bobby as well. Where is the next generation? We are waiting... But maybe it’s because it is a small instrument, I mean there are some hundreds of people who play the vibraphone but it’s not like piano where there’s thousand of possible piano players out there. So, it’s an interesting history. Playing the vibraphone is a professional challenge. No band needs a vibraphone player. Every band needs a drummer, a bass player, a piano or a guitar but no one needs a vibraphone player so if you are a vibraphone player you have to make your own way and that’s why most of us end up leading our own bands in order to do our job.  My first job was with George Shearing and it was one of the few groups that used vibraphone but now I know of no group that has a vibraphone player that isn’t a leader. So vibraphone players tend to make their own career. It’s a bit challenging when you are starting out trying to become a leader in the beginning but there are not many opportunities to be a side man as a vibes player.

You and Mr. Corea perform together for 35 years and my guess is that both of you view each your encounter not as a project but rather a process, a musical journey if you like it. What is it that prompts you to think that this collaboration is still interesting and challenging for you as a musician?

I have two answers to that. One is that we don’t play all the time. We play every year. At least few concerts. And then in about every ten years we do a tour like this year when we tour the whole year together. This is the beginning and we finish next summer and take a break but we play a little bit every year, a festival here or there or something. We do many other things too; we have our own bands, we have our own projects; so it kind of stays fresh for us, because we don’t do it constantly. I think that if we’ve just worked as a duet we’d probably have finished after five years or something. The other thing is we seemed to have some kind of very high level communication ability; good report as they say. You have this with every musician that you play with to some level. It’s pretty high with some people and pretty low with some others. Maybe they are wonderful players but you don’t necessarily connect with them. With every musician that I’ve played with, I can tell you ok, on the scale of one to ten it was the seven with that guy, and it was the four with that one and so on. But with Chick it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced with any other musician and he feels the same way; at least he says so. And it happened so that very first time we tried to play as a duet, we played a little bit in a band situation and we didn’t seem to feel very special about it. It was just ok. But when we tried playing as a duet the first time it was like magic was happening. I could just see what he was going to do next and he could read my mind and so as we played, interaction was just exciting to us. And every time we get together to work up some new music and start the tour it comes back. It’s the same thing again. I think that’s part of what keeps bringing us back together again.

It is ironic that both of you were rather pessimistic about the whole thing and it required Manfred Eicher’s persistence to make you to continue…

Well, he only heard us playing one song. The story was that we went to the jazz festival in Munich in 1972 and the promoter wanted a jam session at the end and no one wanted to do it. They only one who said yes were Chick and me. So the guy came to us and said you are only two and we said like we’ll do something. So we played one song and the audience loved it. And Manfred saw that combination. He saw the sparks flying and he said,- expand this into a whole record and this could be great music. Chick and I took the other thought about it from the business side and we said,- who would want to listen to just piano and vibes without the rhythm section? It would never get played on the radio, almost nobody would buy this record, it would be too esoteric, too unusual. We were thinking we were practical. And interestingly, usually that’s the record company that thinks that way. But in this case Manfred was saying,- no, this is going to be great music and you should do it. So, he kept calling us up. Every three weeks I’d get another phone call from him and finally we said,- ok, we’ll do it. We did it in one day. We only recorded one of the songs.  Everything else was the first time through. But still I didn’t expect the public to pay any attention to it. I first saw the difference once when the record came out and our agent started to get the calls for wanting us to play concerts. And the first concert call that we got was a college in Michigan and Pat Metheny was in my band and he said,- ok, I’m gonna go with you to Michigan because this is probably the only time you guys will play and I wanna hear it. So he came with me to Michigan for the concert. Even then I didn’t expect many people to come but it was completely sold out. Thousands of people came and that’s when it hit me that something about that seemed special so, more calls came in, more concerts were booked and so on. The rest is kept on going.      

You are not two DJs on stage with almost endless bank of sounds and huge amplifiers. You are two musicians playing keyboard instruments that sound extremely fragile. Do you have your guesses about what is it that attracts people all around the world to Corea/Burton duet?

I think it is a little of a mystery to us. We’ve even played for the audiences of 15,000 people. And we are two people on the stage with little acoustic instruments. You know, you’re looking out and you see the huge stadium packed with people. Well, when I think about that I think that maybe it is a few things: one is we both are very much virtuoso players so there’s a lot to watch and listen. Even the ones in the audience who are not the experts of music can realize that they are watching some really great players who really can play their instruments. I think that they also sense how well we play together, how much report is going on, how much the music is coming from the two of us. When you are playing in a duet it is so different than a band. With a band it’s like you are having a panel discussion. Each person is giving their opinion about the song. We may take their solos and we all are watching and helping each other. It’s a group thing. With the duet, it’s like you are having a conversation with your best friend and other people are listening to you. And when you talk with somebody you know well you can guess what they are going to say next and the conversation gets really intense and interactive and so on. That’s what happens with the duet. It’s much more excitement to me in the duet format than in the regular group situation.  

“Sometimes I think he makes me play better than I can play” – this is what you said about Mr. Corea and I believe he will readily admit that it is true in his case too. Can you explain it the whole concept of how musicians can make the others play better and help each other to see the music they play with new vitality? 

When you have a conversation with somebody you say something and then you wait and they say something and then you take turns. The beautiful thing about the musical conversation is you both keep talking at the same time while you’re communicating. So, I say something to him and
then it’s his turn to say something back to me and I get to accompany him while he’s doing it and he’s accompanying me. A lot of a time while I’m playing Chick will suggest things to me in a way he accompanies me, the way he’s playing behind me. He’ll introduce figures or rhythms or new harmonies that’s different; and he’ll hear me start something and then he’ll add to it, which encourages me to do more with it. And that’s the kind of interaction we get with anyone we play with but because with Chick it is so intense and high level I know it helps me feel free to try things that I might not be sure of usually but because I feel so encouraged and supported by what he’s playing behind me I feel I just can do anything and that’s how it feels every time we play

You also mention that the jazz bands can’t adopt a communistic attitude, things like we are all equals here. There's a need for vision and concept and only one person can effectively establish and define a vision. But how does it work when two great musicians try to make something together?

I think it’s maybe like a good marriage which is the two people come to an understanding that when it comes to some things this one is the better expert and when it comes to other things that one is a better expert. I think Chick and I have this feeling about each other; we respect each other musically very highly and we seem to have a sense for trusting the other’s judgment when we try something. We never seem to get into a contest of who has the final word or who’s in charge of things. We both make suggestion during rehearsals like let’s try this or maybe a bit slower will work better.  We seem to be comfortable taking each other’s instructions and it is not true for all musicians. We grew up in the same musical background.  He grew up in Boston; I went to school there; we had the same influences, the same teachers, the same musicians that we played with when we were younger and then we both came to New York and we both played with Stan Getz. We came out of the same era of music and we both played keyboard instruments so we think a lot alike. I think there’s a real common ground for us that has made it easy for us to treat each other as equals. The only surprising thing to me is that it’s now thirty-five years. Normally with the any musical combination eventually the people keep rolling and changing and one day it’s time to go different ways. I’ve played with Steve Swallow for 21 years but finally we went different directions. With most musicians there comes a time when you move on and I can only think of a few who stayed together for really a long time. The Modern Jazz Quartet stayed together for 42 years. Who else? The Duke Ellington Band, fifty years or something… But mostly musicians change, and grow and move. Chick and myself, when we had been doing this for about ten years we used to think, - hey, for how long this is going to go on? We’ve been doing this for a long time now. We keep on saying this from time to time but now it’s too late. I guess we’ll just keep on going.

You perform in front of the audiences with different degrees of familiarity with what you do. How often does it happen during the long tours when you tap into a vein that you feel takes music into a different direction and the intensity of what you tapped into is so challenging that it makes you to accept and try it in front of the new audiences. I mean, you came to Tbilisi from Lisbon; did it happen something there that you’d be willing to try here?

Probably not. As we developed the music on a tour, it evolves gradually over the tour the more we play this or that song. The risks that we take are within the songs that we already know as we start to explore the improvisation that may go sending us to new areas and so on. And we do add the new songs as we tour but we don’t take gigantic risks. We don’t decide - well, tonight we are going to do all Thelonius Monk music and that next week we’re going to play all the classical pieces or something. We find things that work for us. We are basically very much show oriented. We want to deliver a perfect concert for the audience, which means that we are selecting material we are very confident about and know we’ll make a good programme. But within those pieces we experiment and take chances on doing things. Sometimes it doesn’t work; that happens but that’s the nature of improvising. Well, comedians don’t tell the jokes exactly the same way each night. They shape it according to the audience reaction. Some nights they might extend it a little more, some nights they might get a sudden additional thought to add. And they might put them in a different order again using their instinct. But then they don’t walk on the stage with nothing in mind and suddenly say ok, be funny… They have their collection of jokes and stories that they work with. We work the same way. We have the collection of songs. We don’t know exactly how we are going to play them till we see what happens with the audience and with each other. So it always comes up a little different each night. I don’t think of myself as a big risk taker. I think I’m very cautious actually. Chick is much more willing to try out things than me. I tend to be pretty conservative. Yet when I look back at my past I did some very brave things at one time or another. I sort of started the fusion music but I didn’t think it was risky at that time. I look back now and I’m amazed that I did that. But I always think of myself as being somebody who is pretty careful and kind of cautious. I know a lot of musicians who are much more spontaneous and much more wild than I am.

It is often mentioned that good music reflects the times it is created. How do you understand this statement in connection of the improvised music? What are the ingredients that make music breathing with vitality after some time and do you think music today reflects the turbulent times we are living in?

Well, of course with vocal music you have lyrics about what’s going on. With instrumental music you listen to what’s going on around you musically and you use the influences of it. This is especially true for improvisers because we add new notes and interpret the music again every day. So the way I played a song twenty years ago, well, I may play it different now because I’ve heard other players that used more interesting harmonies and if I hear that more Latin music is coming to style so I take this song I used to play a song as a swing tune and now I play it as a Latin tune. I think we listen to everything that is going on around us and sort of soak it in and that influences what we compose and how we improvise. I know that we are more innovative when we are younger and we get less so as we get older. That’s the nature of human beings I think. But still in general I think our music does reflect our era and our time. It doesn’t reflect what happened on the news today so much as it reflects the mood of this time period of this decade. Right now it’s very unsettled almost crisis kind of mood has been going on in the world for the past five or ten years and I think that it has been reflected in the music, in the art in the movies and the books and so on. So just as those things are affected so is the music that we create. We don’t literally try to be chaotic but we listen to everything we hear around us and it influences our music as well.

Is it important for you that the audience understands the intentions of a composer and the context in which the music was created?

One of the things about the language of music, and it is a language, is that it is not a specific language that says this is a glass. In music it is something much more general. It’s feelings… It is a language that expresses feelings and colours and moods and in fact, one of the challenges for musicians is that we have two listeners out there, - one listener understands the language of music. For instance when I listen to music I’m hearing all the technical parts of it. You are a writer. When you read you must look at the sentence structure and grammar not the way a normal person reads. You’re seeing how it was written and you can’t help it because you are a writer. That’s five percent of our audience maybe. The other ninety five percent is listening and they’re hearing it on a different level. They’re hearing changes like it got softer, it got louder, it got slower, faster and if harmonies were rich and dance now it’s open and serene, the melody did this and the melody did that and each of those things can suggest mood changes, feelings and so on. So, the listener attach their own meaning to it… I’ve heard people come up to me and tell me what they thought the song was about and of course I didn’t think about it at all; but it was something that connected in their mind or feelings in a different way. It’s like when you watch the cat sitting in the window looking at the cars moving up and down the street. And you ask yourself what is the cat thinking; the cat doesn’t know that’s the truck from the plumbers store or that’s yellow, blue, green, fast… We don’t know but yet the cat is watching. That’s our audience; they’re watching us pick colours, moods, shift time, rhythms, and they are finding meaning in it. So our job as musicians is to communicate successfully on both levels. We want the musicians to really understand us and non-musicians to really understand us as well. Every great jazz legend, Coltrane, Miles Davis and others, does this well and even people who know nothing about music listen to Miles and they connect to it. That’s my goal. I want to be able to connect to those people just as well whether they are hearing the music part or they respond intuitively to it.

First you learn and then, if you want to become yourself you forget everything… I hear it a lot from the jazz musicians I guess it sound almost like a Zen coan to many beginners and non-musicians. How tough can be the “forgetting” process for a beginner?   

That’s a normal piece of advice; we say practice, study as much as you can and when you go out on the stage to play forget about it. Athletes have the same problem; if you think too much about the technique you loose this spontaneity. We’re balancing two opposite things, - there is serious repetitious regimentation in order to do what we do and at the same time we want to be spontaneous and free, creative, open and everything. At some point as a young player you have to get enough confidence to just trust and step off the edge in a way. We spend our whole life as an artist balancing these two conflicting things inside us. Actors have this problem too. This need to be spontaneous and at the same time not be imprisoned by it. My fear is that this is one of the reasons that artistic people sometimes do such crazy things. We have drinking and drug problems, bust up hotel rooms and so on. And that’s because one of our ways of keeping the prison from closing us in is we keep pushing it away. We keep doing things to remind us that we are free. I think that’s the explanation for a lot of weird behavior that artistic people go through. It’s especially an issue for artist whose craft is based in time. Now writing and painting is something else; you got all day, you can come back to the picture tomorrow and look at it again and add something to it. I have to do my creation at eight o’clock tomorrow night for two hours no matter if I got cold or whatever. I have to do it. So you learn how to cheer yourself up, how to get excited as you approach the concert. Actors and dancers learn it before they go on stage, anybody in the performing arts. You start to learn how to pull your feelings together and get up on the stage and do it. Without the audience I’m very uninspired. I don’t practice; I can hardly bring myself to play the instrument when I’m alone. It’s like there’s no one listening. There’s no talking and there’ no one there and this doesn’t feel complete… So the only time I practice is when I have to learn a new piece. Otherwise, I never think of going in to my house and play those pieces that I already know by myself.

Did it take a long time to trust your unconscious mind?

You trust it more and more and more. I first became aware of this in my late teens and then played jazz for years and I began to notice that I was sort of loose myself in the playing, instead of thinking how to play it. I would stop thinking about it and just kind of play it and pretty soon I’m just flowing along watching myself play and my unconscious takes over more and more and in fact if you ask an experienced player what are they thinking about while they play the song and they won’t tell you that they were thinking about the scales or the chords. They say, - oh, I was just picturing the song or I was just listening or feeling it and I was not really thinking. And often I notice the things I do think about sometimes are strange. I’m thinking about where I have to be tomorrow or conversation I had yesterday or I’m thinking about the lady in the front row with the funny hat and meanwhile I’m playing away down here because my unconscious mind is really in charge of 90% of my playing. And that transition happens probably during, as you learn to play music, between year five and year ten as a child.

Some claim that jazz is one of the least learned art forms in terms of the fact that spontaneity can’t be taught. Is spontaneity something that can be taught and developed or is it an innate thing?

I kind of agree. I mean as I’ve already said you can teach people the mechanics of music but you can’t teach them talent. Let’s get back to language again. I can teach somebody how to speak English If I’m an English teacher but I can’t teach him or her to be a great speaker or a comedian. I can’t teach them to be one of these people that have a gift for speech. I was just watching a politician on TV this afternoon and I was thinking, wow, this guy can talk so good! He has a real gift for that. And even all of us can talk only some people seem to have this gift to really communicate. You can try to improve it but you have to have a talent for it and I think this is true with improvisation. Every musician could improvise song but to be great at it that’s something that seems to be there or not there. There’s no secret ways to teach being great. You can only learn the mechanics of music; same in case of teaching composing; you learn the mechanics of orchestration, theme development and so on. But to come up with actual finished product that is genius. It means that something goes on there… Which is why out of every hundred and thousand musicians there’s twenty or thirty that really achieve very high level of ability of this.

You’ve been performing and teaching for many years but this is your second year as a radio DJ. Why did you decided to try your hand at it?  I may start DJing myself for the first time. Do you have any hints for a beginner? 

Believe me you don’t need my advises, you’ll do it great yourself… Well, every jazz musician has two fantasies: one is to have your own recording studio so that you can make a record any time you feel like it. The other is to play discs because for years we’ve listened to other people play our music and we’ve done endless interviews on the radio talking about our music and so on and we always think it would be fun to be on the other side of the microphone and actually choose the records and talk about them. Two years ago I was doing an interview on radio and when I finished that interview the director of this station said had I ever done any radio. And I said no but like a lot of musicians I’ve always thought that it might be fun. So he suggested that we try this. I do it once a week and I do it from where I am. I’ll do my next show from Moscow. I carry a little digital recorder and a studio microphone and I send the files over the Internet to New York with the assembled show. I’ve been doing it for a year and half now. It takes me about two hours to make twenty-four announcements. Usually I work with the programme director at the station and I make up the list of my favorite records and songs… Only jazz record by the way. And he puts together the programme for the show and what my announcements are going to be. In the announcements I’ll talk about record that’s been just played and introduce the one that’s coming up. So let’s say I’m going from Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus into a Charlie Mingus record and I’ll talk about when I played with Mingus at Carnegie Hall and how he got into an argument with John Lewis and so on. It takes me only two hours to record my announcement and send them off to New York. And I do it Wednesday or Thursday and it airs on Sunday every week. I don’t know how long I keep doing this but it’s fun. Besides I also though it would be good publicity for my carrier for it goes all over America and Canada.