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Dave Burrell Trio: New York, NY, September 10, 2011

Garrison Fewell By

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Dave Burrell Trio
Crosscurrent 3 Festival
Poisson Rouge
New York, NY

September 10, 2011

For its third annual edition, Crosscurrent moved the festival from its home in Botticino, Italy to New York City. Following the sonic delights of the Vision Festival in June, Crosscurrent 3 offered an additional array of creative music ensembles led by Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Burrell, Wayne Horvitz, Taylor Ho Bynum and Joe McPhee.

Dave Burrell has long been a favorite pianist for his remarkable ability to play across stylistic boundaries in jazz. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in 1965 with a degree in composition, arranging and performance, Burrell dedicated himself to the pursuit of creative music that combines his dual talents as composer and free jazz improviser, performing alongside artists such as Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and David Murray. Few pianists have so successfully and consistently performed improvised music containing influences ranging from Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington to classical composers such as Puccini—see Burrell's LP, La Vie de Boheme (BYG/Get Back Records, 1969) and a Leonard Bernstein trio LP, High Won-High Two (Douglas/Black Lion, 1968) with Sirone and Sunny Murray. His predecessor, pianist Jaki Byard was similarly able to seamlessly employ the entire history of jazz in a single solo with Charles Mingus' 1964 sextet.

The trio performed five of Burrell's compositions in a seventy-five minute set. They played so well together and the arrangements were so intuitive, displaying an air of casual familiarity and relaxed interplay, that there was no clue this was a premier performance organized exclusively for the festival.

Burrell announced the first tune, "Black Robert," dedicated to a street hustler from Harlem in the '60's. Sounding somewhat like a Kurt Weill show tune, Steve Swell played the subtly stated theme on muted trombone over a march-like tempo, then moved into an extended, swinging blues-inflected solo sustained by an acute ear for melodic invention. The trombone and bass dropped out to allow the pianist a short, incisive solo. Swell and bassist Michael Formanek re-entered as Burrell subtly restated the theme which led to a bass solo. Formanek's sound was woody, supple and well balanced throughout the range of his instrument, while his melodic and rhythmic inventions morphed without pause into collective trio improvisation. Burrell, a master of consonant dissonance (or dissonant consonance?) played in the upper register, quickly switching to low-keyed rumblings—then turned to his trademark syncopated stabbing, left hand leaping over right-handed, rolling knuckle clusters, followed by both hands playing independently at extreme registers, and concluded with a beautifully stated rhythmic motif extracted from the main theme, re-harmonized with dashing, non-tonal chord structures.

For the second tune, "Downfall," Burrell explained to the audience, "We're giving this one up to Steve's mastery because in rehearsal, Steve started playing and our jaws just dropped—we couldn't even get in on the tune!" "Downfall" opened with long glissando bass notes, Formanek's tone articulated and clear. Swell's playing lived up to Burrell's gracious introduction as he used a variety of dynamics and layered rhythmic intensities, adding perfectly executed high notes and "altered techniques." Burrell jumped in with a quote from the Neopolitan song, "Funicoli, Funicola"—a nod perhaps to the Italian Crosscurrent festival?— and delivered a solo that was both free and motivic, atonal yet with completely coherent, organized ideas. Restating the single-tone theme, Burrell then dropped out for a bone/bass duet. Formanek picked up Burrell's rhythmic motif and developed it with double-stops through multiple transpositions, the time shifting easily, becoming pensive and minimalist. Another collective improv, and Burrell played the theme again over long bass glissandos. This is free jazz that doesn't eschew melody, rhythm or harmony. Afterwards Dave commented to the audience, " 'Downfall' started off as a tribute to the World Trade Towers, but then Leena Conquest sang it and it suddenly had sex appeal!"

The next tune, "Snake River," was written by Burrell for the winding river that flows across Colorado into Oregon and Washington until it reaches the Pacific Ocean. The pianist explained, "I flew over the river in an airplane—the history of it is overwhelming. Enjoy Snake River!" A gorgeous three-quarter time slow waltz, he opened with a hypnotically repeated alternating left-hand bass note on "one" followed by two right-hand chords on beats two and three, supported by whole notes from the bass. The trombone sang the slightly romantic melody like a cinematic theme when suddenly Formanek was playing super-fast tremolo runs, shifting range with ease as the song turned dark with Burrell's rumbling low-interval limit voicings. He switched to an almost classical/pop feel, and just as quickly pulled the tonal rug out from underneath the song, inviting another collective improvisation. Returning once more to the theme, Formanek played a bowed bass solo with perfectly executed classical vibrato. A masterpiece by composer Burrell, the three-page arrangement of "Downfall" was the highlight of the set.

By this time in the concert, you could feel the effect of Burrell's softspoken, naturally generous warmth, and appreciate the transparent lack of ego in his music and playing, sometimes to the point of asking, "who's the bandleader?" He allowed plenty of space for individual expression from his fellow collaborators, helping to generate a relaxed feel even at the peak intensity of collective free playing.

On "Code Name: Cheap Shot." Burrell provided the context, describing it as "Telegraph and Morse Code versus Society Balls and Espionage." Formanek played a beautiful solo, alternating between dissonance and consonance with very high pizzicato lines supported by an open drone. A trombone and piano duet followed with Swell playing lightning-fast, darting lines with exceptional technique. The pianist soloed, alone again—the best format to hear his imagination at work as he seemingly listened to an "inner time" while playing against it so well, you could almost hear the imaginary rhythm section backing him up! Burrell is a master of deconstructing melody and reharmonizing a theme with non-tonal structures. A two-bar repeating pattern suddenly ended the tune.

The last composition, "Crucifado," had been recorded in 2005 on Burrell's highly recommended solo CD, "Margy Pargy" for Splasch Records in Italy. The version we heard at the Poisson Rouge had a distinctly Spanish minor feel, triads descending slowly over a pedal-tone bass, melody hinting slightly at "Besame Mucho," sauntering along in a lazy-Latin, hazy-afternoon, Almocaden glow, complete with a cold glass of Arujo at the end of a long lunch... always ending in a major tonality. Burrell played bright clusters, celestial circles with the right hand, quoting the melody, once again reharmonized. A frantic 30-second "free" intervention released all tension and the trio returned to descending triads again. A series of ascending diminished chords broke up the theme, with changing textures and colors weaving between melodic lines and single-note rhythmic patterns, shifting time, expanding and contracting, the melody always winning in the end—an almost surreal finale to an energetic set full of invention and intention.
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