While his serendipitous participation in Algiers' Pan-African Festival and the infamous BYG sessions with Archie Shepp and Grachan Moncur III that followed gave him underground street credit, it was his audible awareness of the music's history that has endeared Dave Burrell to the revolution. Stigmatized as "avant-garde" by the misinformed, there is as much Ellington and Monk in Burrell's approach as there is angularity and dissonance.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Dave Burrell: It was a desire to be like my parents. There was always jazz playing in the house as far back as I can remember. The record collection of my parents was tremendous and included the music of Ellington, Monk, Morton, Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. They had a jazz radio show. So the records that she would get ready for her show were the ones she was listening to at home. She taught piano lessons and sang Negro spirituals and my father did the same. He was a singer. They both sang opera and they sang Broadway show stuff. As a teenager, I had friends that were having jazz lessons and could read chords, and I was satisfied with playing by ear and playing a lot of boogie woogie. Finally, I heard Stan Getz on the radio doing "Girl from Ipanema" and I went home and tried to play it, but when I got to the bridge, I couldn't figure out what the changes were. At that point, I knew I needed to study and go much further than just playing by ear and practicing occasionally. I was at the University of Hawaii in the music department for two years. They didn't have much jazz, even though they had a lot of theory, so I wasn't satisfied. I went to Berklee in 1961 and got very, very serious. I stayed there for four years.
AAJ: Your parents' affinity for opera has revealed itself in your work.
DB: Right, I remember as a kid, I always heard my parents saying that opera was the highest art form. I was always curious as to why was it the highest art form. One of Puccini's operas had thematic material that I thought was very beautiful. I was wondering what Puccini was doing and in order to find out, I got into the score. I was only thinking about the relationship between the chord structure, the harmony, against the melody and what made it so beautiful. As I got into one act, one aria in particular, I realized that it was really no different from any other great composer like Ellington or Mingus or Debussy or Ravel.
AAJ: New York's creative loft scene became your tutorial.
DB: There was a loft on Allen Street down in the East Village where Archie Shepp was working on Fire Music. He was doing that as the first major date for Bob Thiele and Impulse! That was at the loft of Charles Tolliver. Everybody was there rehearsing. I was fascinated sitting in the corner listening. I asked Shepp if he wanted to play some blues. There was a piano in the other room. We played and I told him that I was graduating and that I would be back next year. So I came back down in August of '65 and moved to the Bowery and had a duplex loft. Soon after my arrival, Grachan Moncur III gave me a gig at Slug's. I didn't want to have any gigs. I just wanted to be in the shed, but everybody was coming by including Elvin Jones and Gil Evans. Kenny Dorham came by and Archie came by with Coltrane and Marion Brown came over a lot. Paul Bley came over to practice. So I was so busy and so motivated, I felt I was in need of playing underground before I made my debut at Slug's, which was my gig.
AAJ: You later return the favor, featuring Grachan on your Echo session.
DB: Grachan had and still does have this ability to be firmly entrenched in tradition. His compositions and his style allows him to play outside with as much command as he can play hard bop and post bop, which is amazing because he told me that when he and Wayne Shorter came up together in Newark, the way that they practiced was as important as the way that they wrote. When I first rehearsed with Grachan, he spent as much time talking about the compositions and the approach as he did playing over and over certain segments. So I felt I was in a serious musical situation for the approach that he wanted for every song.
One of the compositions he dropped off said that he had just recorded it for Blue Note on his Some Other Stuff album and that this is what Herbie Hancock was playing. I looked at it and there were some clusters. At that time, to see something with a free form solo written down like that, it looked so complicated. It was very challenging for me to play something that Herbie had already recorded. So when we got together the next time, I played those clusters and the accompaniment to the horn lines that he and Shorter played. He told me that their thinking and their approach was that the question line was all of his air and force going out and then the answer line had to be him sucking all of that air and force back in. That made for two very different kinds of attacks, both by the reed and brass instrument. As a result, they had this uncanny feel and swing to that line. I was deeply aware with what had to be done to be hanging out with Grachan. Grachan was also playing with Jackie McLean and Jackie had already recorded Destination Out. Here was another great traditionalist that had respect for the avant-garde.