George Burton represents what many of Jazz’s most exciting figures hoped the genre would become: precarious, dynamic, revolutionary…unable to be contained. Few personify this aesthetic better than Charles Mingus. Not surprisingly, the influence of Mingus (a man who never allowed himself to be restrained by the so called “rules” of genre) are found all over this record. In fact, The Truth Of What I Am takes its title and inspiration from Mingus, who once said: “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.”
Burton is undeniably at the heart of The Truth Of What I Am. From a quick reading of the title alone, it becomes blatantly obvious that this is an intensely personal record, rife with a smattering of emotions ranging from despondent to angry to downright jubilant, sometimes in the same song (such as the Cecil Taylor-influenced “Ber-Nies”, as well as the title cut)
But one cannot deny the Mingus influence on the record, mostly seen in the compositions themselves. “Bernie’s Tune” exemplifies Mingus’s influence most clearly, but it is also impossible not to hear early 1960’s era Mingus in tracks like “Ecidnac” and “From Grass to Grass”, the latter an absolute standout track. “From Grass…” is an elegiac affair. Upon listening I couldn’t help but feel as if I was being sat down and told an elaborate story, with each instrument acting as a different perspective to the same basic plot. Could this be a nod to the unwritten tradition of early jazz? Possibly, but even if it is not, the strength of the song, and much Burton’s work, for that matter, lies in the incredibly literate quality of the music.
Like Mingus, Burton would not be near as effective as a bandleader were he not able to elicit what he needed (and then some) from his band. The difficulty in this is creating memorable pieces within the parameters of the composer’s original vision, while keeping your players happy and challenged. The strong connection Burton has with his sidemen is clearly evident in tracks like “Stuck in the Crack”, where Burton gives his sidemen space to improvise while keeping them in line with his original vision. This approach is also taken in “Ambition and Pride”, a tune dominated by Burton’s driving left hand work and his hard-working, powerful rhythm section.
Burton is at his most exciting, however, when he is pushing the boundaries of the already limitless genre of jazz. It is hard to imagine that he was not heavily influenced by producer Derrick Hodge, whose recent release did just this. Burton uses techniques that frankly, I have never seen in jazz. In “First Opinion”, he explores tape music and looping techniques reminiscent of William Basinski’s ambient masterpiece: The Disintegration Loops. “Song Six” has a distinctive post-rock tone, and sounds as if Austin, Texas, critical darlings Explosions in the Sky were arranged for a jazz combo.
Overall, Burton’s album is an absolute joy to experience. Even in the record’s most vulnerable moments, there is a sense of progression and forward motion that forces the listener to actively adjust oneself to all of the emotions explored throughout the album. Active listening can be difficult for the jazz uninitiated, but Burton makes this transition easy. Burton’s debut is one of the most exciting debuts I have heard in years, and I cannot wait to see where he goes next.
The Truth of What I am > The Narcissist, pianist George Burton’s debut album, is out now on Inner Circle Music.