It’s not easy to establish an original sound on your instrument; it’s especially difficult on a percussion instrument like the piano. The number of jazz pianists I can readily identify in a blindfold test is small: Thelonious Monk, Jaki Byard, Cecil Taylor, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ran Blake, Don Pullen. Dave Burrell is another.
On Wednesday, May 2, Burrell performed a solo concert on the beautiful nine-foot Steinway in Bezanson Recital Hall. It was the concluding event of Season 29 of the UMass Magic Triangle Jazz Series.
Like Byard, the whole history of jazz piano is at the tip of Burrell’s fingers, which he uses as raw material for elaborate storytelling. His approach has a clunky feel, with an upright mien that runs counter to today’s prevailing aesthetic. His tendencies hew closer to the off-kilter plunk of Monk than the refined filigree of Ahmad Jamal. Burrell’s left hand was often emphatic, in the tradition of James P. Johnson and other stride piano masters, giving each piece a strong backbone.
On his composition “Black Robert,” he was not afraid to play the jaunty theme slowly, pressing it into our brains. Once made memorable, Burrell began to add to and alter the melody, digressing from, but never abandoning his original intent.
On his rag, “Margy Pargy,” he upped the ante by doubling the tempo. Other times, even on lush rhapsodies, things would devolve into a churning, vibration-heavy maelstrom. The massive energy Burrell produced on stage stood in stark contrast to his quiet, understated demeanor off the bandstand.
After a standing ovation, Burrell ended the evening with a lesson in creative deconstruction, giving a moving performance of Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the only piece not written by the pianist. Because the melody was so familiar, we got exceptional insight into Burrell’s taffy-like manipulation of the composer’s intent. Even at its most abstract, shards of the song were audible.
Burrell is not overly technical, not interested in wowing audiences with speed and prowess. His aim is deeper and more profound: to move us, to reveal what it means to be human. The simplicity of his compositions drew us in, and before long we found ourselves listening to music full of complex harmonies, subtle rhythmic displacement and considerable dynamic range.
Born in Middletown Ohio in 1940, Burrell has lived in Hawai’i, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Sweden, where he retreats to a rural cottage with his long-time partner, the poet and writer Monika Larsson. He travels widely. His interests are equally broad.
He has written an opera Windward Passages, with libretto by Larsson, that explores conflicting sentiments around Hawaiian statehood. During a small, public listening session the night before his concert, Burrell talked of his daily pilgrimage to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where he served as composer-in-residence. His research there on the Civil War yielded Turning Point (No Business), a crowning achievement in a career filled with them. He has written a score to accompany Oscar Micheaux’s silent film Body and Soul and has adapted Puccini’s La Bohème. He is currently exploring the Harlem Renaissance and worked a couple of unrecorded compositions into his UMass performance.
Another crowning takes place on May 23rd when the 23rd Vision Festival, one of America’s most important creative music gatherings, honors Dave Burrell with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Previous recipients include Muhal Richard Abrams, Milford Graves and Joe McPhee. Burrell will celebrate the evening with a set featuring his old mate Archie Shepp, who will play with William Parker for the first time. Another set will pair Kidd Jordan, 83, and James Brandon Lewis, 35, on tenor saxophones. Darius Jones, Steve Swell, Harrison Bankhead and Andrew Cyrille are other royalty that will share the moment with him.
In 2005 and 2013, Burrell performed at A World of Piano a solo series produced by the Northampton Center for the Arts. As time passes, each visit becomes richer, each performance more wondrous. Long live Dave Burrell.