Fifty years ago, pianist Dave Burrell first announced his presence as a leader on disc with High Won-High Two. The album revealed an artist whose training at the University of Hawaii, Berklee College of Music and in the bands of Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Marion Brown had already made him the consummate “inside/outside” player, with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano tradition and a desire to push that tradition ever further. When he went outside, he was volcanic; when he stayed inside, he was delightfully droll. And he could switch from one to the other, and back again if desired, in a matter of nanoseconds.
Those skills, which have only grown over the subsequent decades, made Burrell a natural choice to be honored at the opening night of the 23rd Vision Festival in New York on May 23. The evening—the first of six at Brooklyn’s Roulette featuring dozens of boundary-pushing jazz musicians—was billed as “Celebrating Dave Burrell’s Lifetime of Achievement,” and that was pretty much what it did, with two exceptions: the customary opening invocation by Vision stalwarts Patricia Nicholson Parker and William Parker (with Hamid Drake helping out on percussion) and an arresting dance piece by Djassi DaCosta Johnson, accompanied by bassist Shayna Dulberger, that began with an a cappella rendition of “Strange Fruit,” its lyrics slightly altered to reflect the brutal April killing of two 21-year-old black men in Oklahoma.
Burrell was onstage for the evening’s three remaining sets, with three different groups. First up was Harlem Renaissance, featuring Darius Jones on alto sax, Steve Swell on trombone, Harrison Bankhead on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. As the band’s name suggested, this set drew more on Burrell’s talents as a traditional jazz scholar and interpreter. Early in the first piece, “Paradox of Freedom,” it felt like he was even traveling beyond 1920s Harlem to 1890s New Orleans. His slow boogie-woogie pattern prompted down-home licks from Swell and extreme note-bending from Jones—until suddenly we were in a free-for-all, with Cyrille (another inside/outside master) going from right in the pocket to floating above the earth. Burrell’s blue-capped head bobbed incessantly as he tortured an oompah figure, engaged in low-register hammering, and knocked out a few birdcalls. And then we were back where we started, the slow boogie again and some parting chords that resonated with the spirit of Jelly Roll Morton.
Next came the moment that most of the folks at Roulette had been waiting for: Burrell’s reunion with his long-ago employer Archie Shepp, backed by William Parker and Hamid Drake. Shepp said warmly toward the end of their performance, “It’s always great to see Dave, and it’s good to know that we’re getting old together.” Historic pictures of them both, in the company of many others like the late Sunny Murray, flashed on the screen behind them during the set, upping the nostalgia factor, as did the presence of their former bandmate Cameron Brown in the audience. But their tough playing throughout made it clear that they’re not overly hung up on memories.
I’ve got to confess that it’s hard for me to watch Shepp play—I keep thinking he’s going to swallow his mouthpiece—but when I closed my eyes, his rough-hewn tenor lines matched up beautifully with Burrell’s painterly comping. The most emotionally engaging moments, however, came on “Revolution,” when Shepp switched to soprano for some vintage sheets of sound and then sang lines that, sadly, feel just as necessary today as they did when he wrote them more than a decade ago—“People up in Harlem want a change, people down in New Orleans want a change”—his wobbly baritone voice dripping pathos.
Speaking of people down in New Orleans, and of getting older, the night’s final set, credited to the Dave Burrell Quintet, featured 83-year-old New Orleanian Kidd Jordan (along with fellow tenor man James Brandon Lewis, Parker and Cyrille). A little bent, slow-moving and frightfully skeletal, Jordan explained to the crowd before the music started that this was only his second gig of the year due to illness. Given his obviously weakened condition, it didn’t seem quite fair to throw him in the middle of an hour-long nonstop full-force free blow, but that’s exactly what we got. When he wasn’t screeching in his instrument’s highest register—balancing out Lewis’ lower-pitched honk—Jordan was either gasping for air, leaning against the piano for support or sitting down and taking a breather.
And then, as the improv neared its end and it became evident to both Jordan and the audience that he was going to make it through, he began raising his right arm in the air and shaking his fist in triumph. People stood up and cheered. A woman ran to the lip of the stage and kissed him. He fist-bumped everyone in the front row. You could say that this memorable closing gambit sort of upstaged the evening’s intended honoree, but Burrell, ever the team player, didn’t seem to mind at all.