He plays the same material and works with some of the same musicians, but pianist George Burton is nonetheless a different beast in concert than he is on record. This critic has rarely, in 11 years and hundreds of concerts, seen a musician who fed off the energy of the room as voraciously as Burton. On Tuesday night at Blues Alley, he brought his band members in on the feast.
His first action toward the audience, however, was to disorient them. Burton began the set with a glitchy solo intro, bucking the time as soon as he established it and taking long, sudden pauses that felt more like a sound check than the main event. Finally, Pablo Menares’s bass and Wayne Smith Jr.’s drums crept in, followed by saxophonist Tim Warfield and trumpeter Jason Palmer with the short-phrase melody to Burton’s “Stuck in the Crack.” The horns both played propulsive, free-ranging solos — then came Burton to capitalize on their momentum.
On his 2016 debut album, “The Truth of What I Am > The Narcissist,” Burton coaxed a luminous glow in his piano tones even during his wildest, most outside improvisations. Playing “Stuck in the Crack” in person, however, he was all fluorescents: harsher lights and quick, colorful explosions. The difference, it became clear, was us. The audience was welcome and open-eared but also intrigued and riled up, and that’s what Burton gave back to them.
The band managed only three more long tunes in its 80-minute set, and all of them had the same kind of symbiotic exchange of vibes. Now, however, the other musicians picked it up, too. On “Second Opinion,” Warfield, now on soprano sax, parlayed the audience’s palpable intrigue into a halting, inquisitive line, slightly monotonous but mesmerizingly so. After his careful buildup, all of the band except Burton fell away, and in their duet the pianist goaded his sideman into spasmodic dissonances. They felt earned, and the crowd ate them up.
“Ecidnac” was Palmer’s turn at the tension-and-release process. Harmonically aggressive, his solo was at first dotted with pauses. Once he felt the audience’s suspense, however, he elongated the pauses, letting Burton and Menares cross swords while we wondered what Palmer would say next. When Palmer’s time came, he alternated approaches: here, delicate passagework like a Beethoven sonata, there, sturdy, hearty barrages.
With the final tune, Warfield’s “Shake It for Me,” something changed, however. The tune had the general feel of soul jazz, a la Horace Silver (or Warfield’s mentor, organist Shirley Scott). But the details were much more complex, with 6/4 time and dense chords. Warfield played a jabbing staccato, Palmer countering with matter-of-fact singsong, and Burton capped them with an off-kilter refraction of Silver. The quintet made magic of the soul abstraction, but in this case they needed no fuel from the audience.