Alone and sitting at a piano in the front of a mid-size room, Burrell captivated the packed house with the sound he produced with his exceedingly long, lithe fingers which when they touch the keyboard become a logical extension of it. Logical, but more importantly, human.
It is important to Burrell that his listeners know that he pays great homage to Jelly Roll Morton, wherein lay the incipience of Burrell’s mastery of the keys. Yet, at the same time, innovation is Burrell’s credo. And even though you may have heard him play a tune from the American songbook once before, how you will hear it again will be completely different. Or you will hear his own composition which is laden with source material in which he truly believes.
I have seen Burrell play several times. Each time, a revelation about how he plays rises out of my hearing, my observation, my perceptions. Burrell is not one to rattle on. He builds and rebuilds, arranges and rearranges within a neat, straight, tight conception of time and tune. He may play an overture to a tune, and then the tune, and then a lengthy improvisation on it. You can determine in your aural mind where phrases of the crux of the piece come through, despite the seeming disorder out of which that indication may emanate.
The quality of the "disordered" nature of Burrell’s improvisation is becoming, for me, rich and controlled. Maybe he will roll the knuckles of his right hand over the keys, going up the scale in a series of loops to a landing place and, there, he might drill the fingers of both hands into the keys to create intense treble moments. He will do this over and over again and modify the heaviness of the fingering and the pedaling to describe the space between incredible two-handed renderings of recognizable phrases that are collectively full-blown songs.
When he plays the songs, he often portrays them in the megaphone of a blue note: which grips you in the dilation of the exploration of durable sonic equations for loving, believing, warmly caressing, loving, holding, caressing again, all infiltrating the quiet place that is your heart. The grip he has on you is no less than the grip that urges you to pay attention when he launches himself into any other aspect of portraying his piano acumen.
A light delicacy in the trilling of and walking on the treble notes contrasts to the darkness of omnipresent bass chords, the interplay of which provides dynamic that moves your listening to arrive at the instances where Burrell stops for a detectable split second to pianistically breathe. As he plays, and is deep within improvising, he will shift his tall bent frame on his seat to settle into a mode of discovery which he executes with brilliance. He gives you the tunes, he tantalizes you with the tunes, then he takes them away. But he always gives them back to you at another level of emotional understanding and feeling. He will stop an evolution with one note. He will close a piece with a satisfying one note. He will radiate happiness & joy with the statements he has made because he has embraced you with everything that is within his being.
Burrell has made love with his instrument. He has exhibited focused metronomic precision within an elucidating repetition of chords, hand over hand gestures, open and shut stretching on the keyboard, interludes between the major progressions within each piece. A reading of his dedication to his music can be derived even if his back is turned to you.
Dave Burrell can do nothing less than connect you with life, no matter in what timbre, tempo, key or dynamic.