The World on a String: Local music scene stalwart Bob Burnett makes a crucial change to a seven-string guitar on his new album.
The World on A String
On 'When You Hear Music,' Santa Cruz music scene stalwart Bob Burnett explores a new instrument: the seven-string guitar.
By Paul Davis
Bob Burnett isn't technically a Santa Cruz local—by purists' standards, the fact that he was born and grew up in New Jersey disqualifies him from that esteemed designation. But after having put his time in over the course of three decades as the consummate Santa Cruz working musician, he's certainly earned a place on the short list for honorary localhood. Burnett moved to town in 1978, when he came to visit his sister and fell in love with the place. In the decades since, he's rarely taken the spotlight but has nevertheless played an essential role in the Santa Cruz music community. Some may recognize him as half of the duo he formed with ex-wife Laurie (known now as Dizzy Burnett) in the 1980s. Others will know him for his role in Pele Juju during the band's final five years (he also accompanied the band during its 2006 reunion), while for fans of local improv theater, Burnett will be a familiar face from his work with the venerable troupe Um ... Gee ... Um ... , for which he provides improvised incidental music.
But it's been a long time since he took front stage as a solo artist. His last release was 1998's Loops & Lines, a well-regarded loop- and sample-based project. His new effort, When You Hear Music, comes almost a decade later, and it finds Burnett taking many of the concepts he teased out with Loops & Lines in unexpected directions—starting with the move away from electronic reproduction in favor of a live band.
"I'm not using loops and samples as much as I was," Burnett says. "Some of the tunes will be in that kind of form, but I'll have a live bass player playing the part that would have been looped bass on the last album. That influence comes from modal jazz, where you have a bass line and then improvisation over it."
While Burnett's use of live players to reproduce the trancelike allure of looped bass might initially seem redundant, Burnett finds that live players afford him much more freedom. "It can be a little bit freer when you're not playing to something that is prerecorded," he explains. "When playing along to a loop, everybody has to be in sync with the loop. With a live musician they can be improvising and doing variations on loop-type lines, so the individual musicians can put themselves into the composition."
Another noticeable change with When You Hear Music comes with Burnett's embrace of the seven-string guitar, a customized instrument popularized by jazz impresario Charlie Hunter. Though Burnett has traded his six-string in for the seven, the change didn't come particularly easily. "A mutual friend of Charlie Hunter and I turned me on to the seven-string. I couldn't get into it—I tried it and hated it, but then kept thinking about it for six months, all the additional notes to play. After that, I decided to give it a try—that was about four years ago." As a working musician who keeps the lights on performing at restaurants around town, Burnett didn't have the luxury of holing up and perfecting a new style of playing. Instead, he threw himself into the seven-string guitar immediately. "It was kind of on-the-job training," he says. "I'm a full-time musician; as soon as I picked it up, I started bringing it to gigs and using it."
With When You Hear Music, Burnett has expanded all of his previous boundaries, and it appears to be paying off. The album has entered rotation at L.A. radio station KJAZ and is getting a lot of notice online. And after years of lying low, it appears the Bob Burnett solo machine might be kicking into full gear—the Kuumbwa CD-release show will be recorded for a pending 2008 live release. For a man who has averaged an album a decade, it's guaranteed to be a special performance to get the live album treatment.
"We're going to be playing some new material that hasn't been recorded," he says. "We have a stellar group of musicians, and we have a very special guest—but I can't mention who it is." Burnett is coy as to who that player may be, but considering the impressive names in his address book, the surprise guest is unlikely to disappoint.
BOB BURNETT's CD-release show for 'When You Hear Music' happens Thursday, Dec. 13, at 8pm at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 adv/$13 door, or $21.50 with dinner; 831.427.2227.
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