It is interesting and somewhat surprising that, for Dave Burrell's second recording for a U.S. label (in almost 40 years) that he returns to the piano trio format. High , recorded in 1966 for Douglas Records (and reissued by Arista) featured Burrell, bassist Sirone and either Bobby Kapp or Sunny Murray in the percussion chair. To those who were familiar with the pianist's roiling tone clusters and volcanic pianism from a pair of Marion Brown dates earlier that year, the fact that side one consisted solely of an exposition on themes from West Side Story might have been somewhat of a surprise. But seamless it was, and the fact that the flip contained a brief ragtime statement and a wash of sound from Burrell and Murray ("East Side Colors") marked Burrell as one of the most complex pianists in the second wave of American free jazz. Over the past thirty-odd years, Burrell has recorded operas of Puccini and of his own design, mined deeply the American piano songbook from Ives to Morton (that's Jelly Roll, not Feldman) to Taylor, and yet his ties to figures like Shepp, Murray, Silva and others in the expat American avant garde remain.
Like High and its companion High Two (released by Trio in the '70s and packaged along with the rest of the session by Arista), Expansion aims to give a consummate portrait of Burrell the pianist, and like the preceding sessions, the pieces that garner the most interest are those which fall somewhat further from the free jazz trunk. Burrell is joined here by stalwart bassist William Parker and drummer Andrew Cyrille for six originals and a gorgeous solo rendition of Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful." "In the Balance" offers Burrell's plaintive right hand at a blissful plateau with Cyrille's cymbal washes and Parker's kora, a delicate but intense rhythmic interplay slowly developing out of pastoral intimacy. This is in stark contrast to the urban immediacy of the title track, where Burrell's left-hand clusters dominate against a chunky Parker-Cyrille juggernaut. A slightly demented ragtime keeps the already fluid rhythm section on its toes, sliding in and out of time more effortlessly than one would expect. The uniqueness of Burrell's approach lies in the fact that, rather than so many of his co-conspirators taking the Cecil method as a jumping-off point, the Jaki Byard model is the germinating seed. Byard and Burrell mine the dense sonic possibilities of earlier pianistic styles while remaining fleet enough to employ them in the harmonic minefield of post bop improvisation. Burrell, like Mal Waldron and Misha Mengelberg, also has a certain tendency to worry a phrase well past its seeming use, creating an undeniable rhythmic tension as well as infusing a much-needed spot of humor.
In a sense, Expansion gives Burrell at his fullest, something which larger ensemble works have failed to do. It also points to the fact that the subtleties and vastness of his improvisational palette are best heard solo, or within a small-group format such as this (and his ongoing duo with David Murray). Like some have said before, the freest approach to improvisation is that which uses the entire history of music in the span of a solo. In that regard, Dave Burrell is truly "free."