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.
This more contemplative mood actually takes shape midway through the album, with Burrell’s solo “Paradox of Freedom.” Here and throughout, the pianist does more than simply offer commentary on the war itself: He explores the emotions of both armies as well as the former slaves who found a new set of struggles in the war’s aftermath. With bits of stride, boogie-woogie and ballad in his playing, Burrell captures the poignancy and levity of the time. Swell, who can blow gently or fire shots as needed, contributes greatly to the music.