Live reviews

REVIEW: Dave Burrell at Cafe Oto

Dave Burrell at Cafe Oto
Drawing © Geoff Winston 2018

Dave Burrell
(Cafe Oto, 1 November 2018. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Dave Burrell’s solo piano sets at Cafe Oto were a revelation. His energised yet nuanced playing combined extraordinary keyboard technique with indefatigable invention in his compositions and extemporisations. His performance brought to mind to mind Keith Tippett’s virtuosity, and he has prompted Thom Jurek to write (for “There is only one pianist in Dave Burrell’s class and that is Misha Mengelberg.”

Dave Burrell is something of an enigma, profoundly talented, but as Francis Davis (I think) wrote in Village Voice, “shockingly neglected”, yet quite urbane and unfazed in his manner, recalling something of Ellington not only in his compositional roots, but also in his demeanour.

Ohio-born to a family with Harlem roots, who also lived for many years in Hawaii, he studied at Berklee School of Music and became integrated in to the ’60s and ’70s Boston and New York avante-garde scenes, seeing, learning from and playing with many of the other key figures – seeing Dolphy with Herbie Hancock, learning from Sam Rivers, playing with Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, David Murray and Pharoah Sanders, with whom he would sometimes practise for an exhausting 12 hours a day; also with Grachan Moncur III, Sunny Murray, Beaver Harris, The Aylers, Roscoe Mitchell and, more recently, mining the outer reaches with Henry Grimes and Tyshawn Sorey… the list goes on!

A prolific and dedicated composer, he has worked with his Swedish-born wife, poet and librettist Monika Larsson, on complex operas which address episodes and periods in American (Turning Point with letters from the American Civil War as its subject) and African-American history, most recently a focus on The Harlem Renaissance (Variations: Full-Blown Rhapsody) with references to pianists of that era, James P Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton. He has also gained peer recognition, including Vision Festival’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award.

The traditions of ragtime, stride and jazz piano in the round course through his veins, yet he also breaks out to incorporate its percussive potential, large hands criss-crossing with dynamic deliberation to extract sounds and rhythms at the fringes of the possible.

There was a jumping, springy start to his first set, bouncing notes and ideas with equal intent, two-hands as one then diverging to trace different, overlapping paths. Rough-hewn, strongly structured, then more distant before dropping in hints of recognisable melody. Rare excursions deep in to the bass register reinforced the sonorous resonance of Oto’s Yamaha, drawn out by judicious use of pedals. Dense, chordal clusters gave way to the relentless rhythms of the railroad, cut short suddenly by a subdued sense of peace. A blink of boogie-woogie, and a warm 12-bar blues which gradually self-destructed with virtuosic invention. Dancing with Monika, considered and contained, closely followed by a spring-loaded Red Summer March, composed in the company of Steve Swallow one freezing winter, a spikey blues morphing in to a solid beat with a crafted melody strung over it, summoning up the spirit of Ellington.

The second set was also an eye-opener – a jumped-up blues dissolving and resurfacing with a foot-tapping ragtime swing before commitment to a Burrell favourite, Strayhorn’s Lush Life, the subject of a lengthy deconstruction and reconstruction. It was a joy to follow Burrell’s train of thought as he shifted goalposts and revelled in Lush Life’s surprisingly symphonic potential, a crunching, thunderous magnificence contrasting with wistful, lightly poised passages, the main theme deeply woven throughout Burrell’s internal, yet outward-facing, discourse.

The greatly appreciative audience was matched by an equally appreciative musician, humbled by his rapturous reception, who commented also on how special he felt the venue was.

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