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Dave Burrell/Steve Swell: Turning Point

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Effectively depicting the struggles of the Civil War presents a challenge for any group, especially a piano/trombone duo. But pianist Dave Burrell, composer-in-residence at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, has used his position to research the war’s timeline and channel his findings into his skills as a writer and free-thinking improviser. With only Burrell and trombonist Steve Swell, the sound may be spare but the stories are vast.

Turning Point stands up even if the listener is unaware of the subject matter, but knowing the backstory definitely helps. In “One Nation” Burrell and Swell take the soldier march song “I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told” and play it a half-step apart from each other to create tension. Two tracks devoted to major confrontations offer contrasting moods. “Battle of Gettysburg” evokes the carnage of the fight with trombone smears and splats and percussive piano attacks before closing with a melody that conjures a bugle call. “Battle at Vicksburg,” which concludes the set, meditates on the aftermath of the war’s turning point, using the broken chords of “Ave Maria” as its foundation.

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