"I just played at the Philadelphia Art Museum
," says pianist Dave Burrell. "It was a white tablecloth kind of night. It was right after the big snowstorm, and everybody was just wanting to relax. So I played ballads. I knew from the clientele that it wasn't a kind of audience that wanted to go into too much of exploratory energy kinds of situations. They just wanted to relax and hear the material played straight. I was playing Cole Porter, Gershwin, Ellington and my originals as well."
While he is perhaps best known for his late '60s free jazz work with the likes of tenor saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders, Burrell has a vast repertoire. His style stretches back to Harlem's stride pianists and the Jelly Roll Morton school of ragtime, but he also incorporates colorfully wrought chords. His chord progressions often borrow their basic character from early jazz, but their upper notes follow the more modern scalar permutations that he learned from Nicolas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales (which Pharaoh Sanders recommended to Burrell after he had seen John Coltrane studying from the book).
Burrell is comfortable in white tablecloth settings, but he is just as at home playing free. His ongoing work with tenor saxophonist David Murray is legendary. He is currently working with drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist William Parker on a project called the Full Blown Trio (The name "indicates that I really stretch out, which I don't often get the chance to do in, say, a quiet little romantic café."). And he will also be playing solo at Tonic on April 17th, a venue where stretching out should go over pretty well. But he is happy to play either way. "If, wherever I go, I do the exact same thing, I feel that that's not really enough for me as an innovator," he explains. "If it's one thing all the time for me, I get bored."
Dave Burrell is a generalist. It is not in the specifics that his music stands out. If you listen to one or two bars of his music, you might not get much out of it; he is not about dazzling turnarounds or sudden intervallic leaps. His music works when you step back and look at the whole. There is an overall flow that goes past barlines and chord changes, that transcends melodic motifs. When one takes in an extended Burrell composition, one feels a strong sense of atmosphere, of psychic space.
Burrell often cannot confine his music to the realm of sound. Over the years, he has created works that combine music with story, dance, film and painting. Mixing media has become such a passion for Burrell that it is only tempered by the size of the grants he receives for the projects he works on.
He recounts being splattered with paint while playing in a dizzying multimedia show at Lincoln Center ("We didn't know the paint was going to splatter, but he got real worked up."). And he intends to put together a show with South African drummer Selwyn Lissack that will involve synching up lasers to the sound coming from the instruments. "A lot of people say, 'Okay, that's predictable and I saw a version of that and you don't need that.' And I say, 'Yeah, I don't need that, but for me it's interesting to do and so I don't really know [whether it will work] until I try.'"
But his largest multimedia works have been his collaborations with the Swedish writer and librettist (and now Burrell's wife) Monika Larsson. Windward Passages is a full-length opera about land development in Hawaii (where Burrell grew up) that features vocal soloists, a 21 piece orchestra, dancers and a chorus. The two also collaborated on Holy Smoke, a music and dance piece based on a book by Larsson of the same name. Burrell put the story to music that is performed with modern and tap dancers.
"I never did think it was going to take so much time and that each of these projects was going to be so monumental. I was just exploring, studying and enjoying, and I was thinking, 'That's okay that they take so much time because now I have some other category that I can be secure in later in my career,'" he says of the projects.
His excitement for learning is evident when he describes the projects. With Windward Passages, "the challenge was, 'Can I get singers that will be able to do this?' And I had Hilda Harris [from the Metropolitan Opera] and she said, 'Yeah, I can sing it, but you're playing much too fast.' And so I realized that this is opera, so I have to slow down and I have to learn about that."