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Dave Burrell Full-Blown Trio at October Revolution Festival

Victor L. Schermer By

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Dave Burrell Full-Blown Trio
October Revolution Festival
Christ Church Neighborhood House (Great Hall)
Philadelphia, PA
October 6, 2018

It isn't often one attends a jazz piano trio concert where the group plays a single totally improvised composition for about an hour. It would seem as daunting to the audience to hear as for the musicians to play. But pianist Dave Burrell is a masterful pioneering musician who recently earned the Lifetime Achievement Award of the New York Vision Festival. His cohorts -Darius Jones on saxophone and Chad Taylor on drums -are exceptional players in their own right and constitute Burrell's current working group. They deftly provided electrifying and soul-satisfying music that was admittedly "far out" (some call it avant-garde, but Burrell doesn't like that term) but always within the parameters of the great, expansive, era-spanning jazz tradition, providing familiar reference points throughout.

The piece began frenetically with intense drumming by Taylor and a late-John Coltrane-like line by saxophonist Jones, and then evened out with a strong, persistent pulse by Burrell. It then proceeded to a series of movements that varied between quiet reflections and cacophonous simultaneous free improvising, the saving grace of which was the skill and precision of all three, especially Taylor, who proved himself nothing less than magnificent on drums. Burrell moved easily among diverse piano motifs that varied from intense pulsations to delicate impressionist variations to signature tone clusters using his uniquely perfected fist-like attack. The piece had a distinct development building to a powerful denouement, with multiple voices engaging in dialogue, sometimes assenting and sometimes in conflict with one another. The audience was captivated by the playing and gave a standing ovation at its conclusion. The overall impact was of an astounding tour-de-force.

This reviewer wanted to know how such an on-the-spot co-created composition is conceived. Seemingly created from out of the blue, there must be sources that propel it. Burrell told me that there were no pre-composed sections, that the whole piece was created in the moment. He said that the three musicians spontaneously came up with musical ideas and fed them to one another. He compared the exchanges to trapeze artists who leap into the air but become perfectly poised to catch their partner at just the right moment. He made an additional comparison to basketball players who shoot a basket and then immediately follow up with their cohorts on the court. The idea seems to be that the musicians need to do two things at once, drawing freely from their own inner resources while aware of the whole group.

Burrell said that one of his own recent sources of inspiration has been Verdi's opera, Luisa Miller whose complex plot revolves around dramatis personae each responding differently to Luisa's tale of unrequited love, resulting in Luisa's death. He feels that similarly, each musician in a jazz group has his or her own internal understanding and inner voice, and that their voices come together in a dialogue that sometimes embodies conflict and sometimes resolution. Hopefully the music comes alive and doesn't die the way Luisa did! Other themes that go through Burrell's mind as he plays are magic, escapism, and the power of nature. At times during the performance, he was thinking of Ravel's Bolero, with its repetitive rhythm that builds in momentum. He also referred to the silent films of the first African American film-maker Oscar Micheaux, who deftly shifted scenes in a way that influenced much of the subsequent cinematic repertoire. By analogy, he thinks of music as shifting motifs that are well-integrated with one another.

This concert was part of the "October Revolution" series of contemporary music sponsored by the Ars Nova Workshop (Mark Christman, director) which deserves much praise for consistently presenting music and performers on the cutting edge who in this day and age, as in the past, face funding cuts and other obstacles to artistic expression and freedom.

Personnel: Dave Burrell: piano, leader; Darius Jones: saxophone; Chad Taylor: drums.
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