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Dave Burrell: Pianist Navigating the Windward Passages

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: In my research for the interview, I came across two completely different recordings entitled Windward Passages: Hat Hut, a Swiss label, in1979, and Black Saint label, in 1993, with totally different tracks.

DB: The Windward Passages to which I'm referring was recorded with me on solo piano in Switzerland in 1979, released by Hat Hut. It was a live recording of a radio show. Then we did it with a studio orchestra in Sweden in the 1980s. but that was never released. The 1993 recording on Black Saint was a studio album with me and David Murray that had nothing to with my jazz opera Windward Passages. The 1993 album was mis-named by the record company for whatever reasons they might have had!

AAJ: Let's take a look at some of your other cabaret opera work. Your West Side Story is based on Leonard Bernstein's music. Another, La Vie Boheme is based on Puccini. While some of the melodic motifs resemble those of the originals, you go so far out in your own direction with these that it would be hard to tell where they came from. My impression is that you hear and play differently from others, whether mainstream or avant-garde.

DB: Oh, sure! With Bernstein, the very first thing that I discovered was that he was one of the greatest composers I ever heard. Then I saw a documentary in which he was playing the Chopin "Etudes" where he remarked that they were the most essential piano works of all. But when I heard Oscar Peterson playing West Side Story (Verve, 1962), I loved his arrangements with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. And I felt that I had something to say about it too! So I bought the Bernstein piano/vocal score and started re-arranging the standard pieces. I didn't want it to sound like the Broadway show or Peterson's version. Even though it was my first recording as a leader, I needed it to sound like my other recordings. So I decided not to give the bassist any music at all, just let him play whatever he wanted to, and use that as a painter would, to stimulate a spray of notes. The drummer and I played in time, while the bass player went all over the place! Sometimes it sounded avant-garde, and sometimes it sounded all wrong, and even I had trouble relating to it! But when I hear it today, I have no problem with it at all. I was waiting for a window to jump out of. I wanted to free myself and go outside. For example, I took the melody, the three notes of "Maria" and did what I wanted with them. My version of West Side Story was first introduced as a twenty minute track on High Won-High Two (Arista, 1968). There I started to interpolate Bernstein's themes into the rhythm, building up a lot of energy into a tornado style solo. Then I came back to the regular temperament, and my musicians followed suit.

The Civil War Project

AAJ: It sounds like a prime example of "inside/outside." Over the decades, you've had such a productive career and pushed the limits of music in many wonderful ways. We've been talking mostly about the early days. Let's fast forward to recent times. For the past five years you've been doing what you call your Civil War Project in conjunction with the Rosenbach Museum's collection of Civil War documents and photographs, and in which your wife, Swedish poet and writer Monika Larsson, has written the lyrics. It is a combination of composed and improvised music about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, composed for piano, additional instruments, and singers. What would you like to convey to our readers about this important Project?

DB: It's intended ultimately to be a full opera, but for the past five years, we've written and premiered sections of it at the Rosenbach. Up until last year, the focus was on piano and instrumentalists like Odessa Balan on violin and Steve Swell on trombone. Then in the last two years, we began to add the vocal parts. For that purpose, Monika and I did the historical research, and then she wrote the poetry. We already knew our singer would be lyric soprano Veronica Chapman Smith. The three of us worked together. I had always found that setting Monika's words to music was highly rewarding , as in my album Windward Passages that we discussed earlier. The Civil War Project has been a wonderful venture for Monika and me, and I want to thank the Rosenbach Museum, which is part of the Free Library of Philadelphia, for such a life enriching experience.

The first year we did Portraits of Civil War Heroes. We poured through books and documents and visited museum exhibits. We even went to see the bullet hole in Elmer Ellsworth's uniform, from when he got shot taking down the Confederate flag in Virginia.

AAJ: So you became Civil War buffs!

DB: We did! We came to experience how cruel a war it was. The second year, I composed Civilians During War Time. We read the soldiers' letters to their families. I wrote songs like "Mama, I'm Still Hungry" and "Have You Seen My Son?" Odessa Balan played the violin part. The third year was a turning point in the war and also for my composing, which reflected the turmoil of the war. It felt like we were witnesses to this fury of war. We looked at the original Emancipation Proclamation, I imagined the slave trade, recalled the torture devices and shackles I'd seen in the museums. Monika helped me find out that my father, born and raised in Lousiana, was the great grandson of Mamie Davis, wife of Earl Davis, who was a freed slave. We found the whole genealogy, showing that I was a descendent of freed slaves. So I was the "real thing," and the Rosenbach staff loved it! It was so moving for all of us, that we decided to continue the program.

So for the third year, I asked trombonist Steve Swell to participate in Turning Point (No Business Records, 2014), a suite of music about the horrors of the war. That concert was highly praised by the critics, which provided further encouragement to complete the series with a homage to Lincoln, for which Monika provided the lyrics based on historical documents, and I composed for myself on piano and Veronica Chapman Smith singing the lyrics with some improvisation.

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