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.