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Dave Burrell: Pianist Navigating the Windward Passages

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Almost right away you were connecting with the avant garde.

DB: Yes, and my first live gig was in the East Village, at Slugs, which the owner Jerry Schultz called "Slugs in the Far East," meaning it was located way over on the East Side between Avenues C and D. I was with Grachan's group that I just described. So, on that gig, we started to play what was then considered a bit free or outside music, but Grachan's composing was so strong that it was easy for us to come back in the house, so to speak, on the inside of the tune, and make sense.

AAJ: Is that the first time you heard that phrase, "inside and outside"?

DB: It was a phrase that was dangled around the hipsters like Jackie McLean, who had been a protégé of Charlie Parker and basically had played everything that was in his way of thinking on the "inside," and was searching for something new. But none of the masters wanted to be accused of going rogue, so they would experiment, but they would always return back to the melody, so no one would think they were doing something strange that had nothing to do with the composition.

AAJ: So "inside" and "outside" referred to going in and out of the melody and chord structure?

DB: Yes, a good example of that would be John Coltrane's recording of "My Favorite Things." It was a Broadway showpiece, but his arrangement allowed him to make an interlude that was modal. So the group is in waltz time, and they vamp, then they let John play until he has exhausted his soprano solo, and then John nods to McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison that he wants to go back to the melody. So all the music critics and intellectuals were saying, "I get it! Do you get it? Well that was an interlude on the Dorian or Phrygian mode." So all of us aspiring musicians, would say, "That's cool! Can't you stick a modal thing into what we're doing?" Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it sounded ridiculous.

Pharoah Sanders, who I worked with a lot, was at the time gigging with John, and when Pharoah would come over and visit, I'd ask him "What did you and John play while you were on the road in Japan and so on?" And he would change the topic and say, "Well, while I was travelling, they gave me these saxophones and a flute, and I wanna try them all out with you on piano. So sometimes Pharoah and I would practice together twelve hours a day with him alternating alto, tenor, and flute, and then we'd play simultaneously in different keys. After all that, I said to him, "My chops are really sore! My hands are throbbing!" And Pharoah said, "That's great! It's a sign you're getting better!" {Laughter].

The days turned into years. People came by the loft all times of the day and night. Albert Ayler, Donald Ayler, Cecil McBee, Stanley Cowell. Roy Haynes and Archie Shepp did a recording session there. We all were consistently getting better and looking at each possibility, sometimes using my originals and sometimes mixing it up. See, at that time, the avant-garde was still frowned upon a lot. But we were taking risks.

Encountering and Defining the Jazz Avant-Garde

AAJ: So you came on during a period of revolution in jazz, but there was still confusion about what was what. There were Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and a host of others, each with his own approach.

DB: I had already listened to Ornette while I was in Boston. Marion Brown had written his dissertation at Howard University (Washington, DC) on Ornette.

AAJ: Do you yourself have any concept or ways of thinking about different forms of avant-garde jazz?

DB: Obviously "avant-garde" is just a term that covers many things. But let's take Coltrane as perhaps the strongest example. He'd say, "Everybody's gonna take it out now," which meant everyone would leave the stage and he would take one motif, especially if it was from an original he wrote that would enable him to depart from anything that was traditional, like his composition, "One Up; One Down" which consisted of two phrases. That would become the ingredient for taking all of what he practiced and using it. Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales gave him a dictionary, a musical language from which to choose ideas. He practiced so much that he could effortlessly take a motif and then do everything else. He'd make the saxophone scream, use circular breathing, and he would take that piece "out." And then, when he'd get ready to come back "in," the band would come back with a greater energy.

So if Coltrane could do it, we all felt it was legal now! We could do that! Could we all play "Giant Steps?" No! Only some of us could. The word on the street was that if you couldn't play "Giant Steps," you had no business playing something that was completely free because you hadn't really done your homework. Max Roach would say, "Some of them can really do it, and some are like they just got off the elevator on their own floor and didn't bother to find out what's happening on the other floors."

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