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Dave Burrell / Steve Swell: Turning Point

John Sharpe By

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Although firmly associated with the avant-garde, pianist Dave Burrell often harkens back to pre-bop styles in his execution. On Turning Point he explicitly acknowledges such sources in his writing too. Perhaps that's appropriate in a sequence inspired by the American Civil War -what Burrell terms a war to end slavery. While composer in residence at Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum where this recital was performed, Burrell researched the people and events of the conflict. The collection here is actually the third in a mooted series of five suites commemorating the cataclysmic upheaval, though the first to appear on disc, courtesy of a recording by Burrell's accomplice trombonist Steve Swell.

In spite of the weighty subject matter, the music sometimes sounds playful and even at times humorous, particularly in the first half of the 45 minute program. In part that's testament to the attentiveness the participants pay to both each other and the charts. Either can pick up on a move into open form in the blink of an eye. Burrell maintains a percussive syncopated approach which incorporates ragtime and stride alongside oddly accented dissonances. Swell often seems as if he might be pursuing a vocal line in his melismatic rendition of melody which often blossoms into expressive muted effects.

In the liners Ed Hazell helpfully explains Burrell's concept for each piece and reveals some programmatic elements to the proceedings. "One Nation" starts with a prancing rhythm from the piano, replete with offkilter discords, and later nods to Civil War songs like "Yankee Doodle." Encapsulated in this is a marching cadence motif which Burrell and Swell voice half a step apart to symbolize the tensions between Union and Confederate soldiers. Later in "Battle At Gettysburg," Swell channels horse whinnies with blowsy chortling trombone and the pianist responds by emulating hoof beats.

"Paradox of Freedom" signals a change of pace and tone. It deals with aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation, when former slaves were free, but with no food, shelter or belongings to their names. Tackled by Burrell alone, the piece is framed by a boogie line his mother used to play, before he contrasts a tender refrain with increasingly thunderous cacaphony. At 11 minutes it's the longest track and one of the highlights. The somber "Disease Hits Contraband Camp" follows, featuring spirited interplay between rambunctious trombone and chiming piano, while the concluding "Battle at Vicksburg" begins in a welter of ominous minor chords but ultimately conveys a valedictory lilt.

Burrell has fashioned a remarkable performance notable for its widescreen filmic sweep which manages to be at the same time restrained but also achingly exuberant.

Track Listing: One Nation; Battle at Gettysburg; Church Picnic Celebration; Paradox of Freedom; Disease Hits Contraband Camp; Fancy Trade Nightmare; Battle at Vicksburg.

Personnel: Dave Burrell: piano; Steve Swell: trombone.

Title: Turning Point | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: NoBusiness Records

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