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Honing Inspirations

For September 24, 2004, pianist David Arner arranged that pianist Dave Burrell play in two venues, Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY and Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening Space in the Hudson Valley. This day was an opportunity to expose myself to a Burrell marathon event, which became an adventure not to be duplicated.

To my mind, Dave Burrell’s playing cannot simply be appreciated. Such descriptive, qualitative vocabulary implies that when you listen to him play, you are in a sense removed and impersonally involved. It is an irrevocable fact that when you listen to Dave Burrell play, you are experiencing his life, his strengths, his compassion, his innocence, his dedication to his instrument. The piano is a part of Burrell’s body. In fact, he positions himself so closely and so intimately with the piano that he has to be seen as integrated into the piano’s own body.

Burrell comes out of that period in jazz when it was changing from an acceptable "bop" mode into a then unexplainable one--"hard bop". Burrell has paid great homage to those musicians who came before the change---Jelly Roll Morton, in particular, whose stylistic bent Burrell often interjects into his own pieces. He believes that Morton retained a continuity within jazz that allowed for the music to change into what became the avant-garde, in itself to become a classic statement in jazz history. Burrell’s youth was infused with music, both popular and unfamiliar. All of the music molded itself to his mind, penetrated his bones. Burrell’s life in music was concerned with often mistakenly finding the limits within which he was supposed to play the piano, then practicing within those limits. It was later when he connected with other musicians that he began to stretch those limits and then he finally started breaking the rules and making his own.

At RPI, I happened to arrive early enough to have the privilege of observing Burrell practice. He had no idea I was there. His eyes were closed. His focus could not be broken, his energy unstifled. Repetition of note assemblages were tested over and over again mid- keyboard then moved to the bass and treble. He kept spring in his fingers which I could see when he periodically lifted his right index finger. Breaking with stringency of the practice, he burst forth with a tune to relax his total self and prepare for playing.

Analyzing the breadth of his improvisation tends to render a false picture because words are approximating music. Burrell knows so much and has grown as a result of his knowledge and interaction with a multiplicity of bands that his playing has become dense and ripe with intensity. No key he hits unintentionally. Even when he scrambles the keys to create a furious interlude, most often contrasted with a soft motion conveying a gentle spirit, Burrell’s fingers flutter with a determined destination. He knows exactly what he is doing. The spark of inspiration hits him and he just goes.

He plants chords hard into the keyboard, both when they are syncopated and synchronized. His long fingers fly up and down the keyboard. The precision with which he attacks the notes both in terms of dynamics and gesture is penultimate. At times, the flare with which he plays translates to something that Franz Lizst might create. And the tunes, ah, yes, the tunes which become the backbones of his art, are ones which you will probably identify. Burrell’s songbook is thousands of pages thick. The tunes seep into flurries of approach, extenuations of ornamentations. He demonstrates endless means to reach the core of a melody. In and out of striking rhythms, does he go, manufacturing an atmosphere that unmasks you, reaches you, touches you, turns you into attentive clay. You can do nothing other than listen, watch, sink into the wrap that Burrell throws around you.

The session at Deep Listening Space as well established all the texture, all the outpouring of extended song and continuous discovery. The breaths between phrases, the notes that hang in the air, the bridges which are slightly offbeat...that is what you go for, that is what you want to hear.....

When Burrell closes a piece, it is with design and expressiveness. His hands might move high into the air and his fingers will descend to the keys again in a final bang. And after that, he might turn to the audience full-faced, usually with a delicate smile.

It is with great joy that Dave Burrell plays the piano. It is with great joy, & often a little tearfully, that I have written these words about him.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dave Burrell
  • Concert Date: 9/24/2004
  • Subtitle: Listening to Dave Burrell
  • Venue: Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute and Deep Listening Space
  • City State Country: Troy, NY and Kingston, NY
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