during the halcyon free jazz days of Paris in the late 1960s, and over the last four decades has returned every so often to that fiery, driving jazz. Yet he is also an enthusiastic advocate of the great pianists of the traditionchiefly Duke Ellington
and a sensitive composer whose own work shows those disparate influences.
Burrell has long made Philadelphia his home, but even still his concerts there are rare. Within two weeks in January, however, he played four times; presenting two programs each new in its own way. On January 18 and 21 (including a matinee on the second date) Burrell presented a set of new compositions based on historical documents. And then on the 30th he played in a first-time meeting with Dutch drummer Han Bennink
The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Rittenhouse Square was the home not just to Burrell's soundtrack to the past but it houses the collection of letters Burrell has spent the last year reading and researching. Civilians During War Time is the product of that work, a set of compositions about, he said, communities divided between the north and the south and families torn by the war. The six pieces played by Burrell and violinist Odessa Balan in the Saturday night concert of January 21 were, in fact, a part of an ongoing effort at which the composer plans to spend the next year working.
The strongest piece of the night was far and away the first, where Burrell played alone and was free to move. "Legends of Auction Block Runaways" began with a slow, pre-jazz ballroom feel and progressed into what felt like a literal narrativethe terror of being shackled, the panicked rush of the escapedelivered by someone who knows the piano's capabilities through and through (and, not incidentally, possessing of huge and powerful hands). If there were the sorts of quick, multiple lines of dissonance that often draw comparisons between Burrell and Cecil Taylor
, there was also Morton's studied syncopation. Full arm cascades intermingled with single note strolls.
The other pieces were more strictly by the book. Burrell and Balan did little to embellish the scores, giving them instead a reading befitting a classical recital. Burrell is a fine jazz composer, but as with his jazz opera Windward Passages, the pieces would have benefited from an improviser's approach. "Have You Met My Son?" was a measured lament delivered in simple piano/violin counterpoint with plenty of emotional resonance, but it still could have hit harder. "One Nation" interpolated "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "I Wish I Was in Dixie" in a way that cried out unheeded for spontaneous dialog. "Code Name: Cheap Shot" was the strongest of the of the duo pieces, following another narrative line with hints of espionage and society parties played out through ballroom tunes and a Morse code motif.
The rift between page and stage was underscored the following week when Burrell revisited "Cheap Shot" with Bennink. The drummer forced starts and stops onto it, Burrell refusing to let anything offset the single-note Morse code theme. (In another context it could have been a Neil Young
guitar solo.) Bennink made his way down to the floor during the piece, playing the hardwood and giving Burrell the room to play rather than simply recite. With the passage of a couple more minutes, Bennink was prone, laying on his back with sticks still in hands and boot heels engaged in the rhythm-a-ning. He seemed happier on the floor, relieved of so many options and free to create new ones.
The concert, produced by the always reliable Ars Nova Workshop, was in the cozy upper floor of the Philadelphia Arts Alliance, just blocks from the Rosenbach Library. And it was a perfect 75 minutes. "Cheap Shot" was the second piece of the program, following "The Box," one of Burrell's most enduring melodies. Throughout the set, the pair played with assured conviction, not too fast to not swing, putting emphasis not on speed but on pace.
After Burrell's two pieces the pair took on the most standard of standards, showing that their spirits were big enough to make Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
their own. "Sophisticated Lady" sang, even if Bennink's approach to balladeering isn't to play soft or play slow so much as it is not to change drums quite so much. He played time but pushed the volume until Burrell had little choice but to find a Monkish pattern within the melody on which to focus. Still, nothing could keep Ellington from being Ellington. If at times it seemed they were both trying to break free, then the sad refrain still was not to be held down.