The Honor of History and Jazz

Posted By Eva On October 30, 2006 @ 8:48 am In Jazz & Blues | 2 Comments

Getting a chance to sit down and talk with Dave Burrell is kind of like celebrating Christmas and the 4th of July in the same day. Itís not everyday you get a chance to speak with a figure of the jazz revolution. So when you do, you listen, and you listen good. You can learn a lot from a man of Burrells stature. And the chance is really quite the honor.Burgeoning in the jazz scene as a pianist in the early 60ís, Burrell has since released over 100 recordings, including personal works and collaborations with the likes of [1] Billy Martin. As a wise man soaking up enough cultural hysteria and pulchritude to layer his every pore, he in himself is a historical figure. Currently on tour in Europe, he continues to grow and persevere as a musician in a changing era. In our exclusive interview with Burrell, he speaks on his influences, experiences and the timeless yet evolving culture of jazz. Burrell isnít simply telling us the story. He is the living version.

Freshout: To start off, Iím really curious how you would describe your music to people who may not be familiar with it.

Dave Burrell: Well, what Iím known most for was called avant garde jazz, starting from the mid 60ís. It really started with John Coltrane taking the lead. Though this model of free jazz has strong traditional ties to art-bop, rhythm and blues, blues, gospel and the city.

Freshout: So then, free jazz is traditionalism that eventually just got more creative? People got more creative?

Dave Burrell: Well, what I think happened with Mr. Coltrane, for example, was that he mastered his instrument to a point where it didnít make any sense for him to limit himself to playing on the chord structures of songs anymore. For example, if you just take something as simple as Marry Had a Little Lamb and you wanted to improvise on it, you would take the chord structure just as three chords. If you can imagine in that very elementary example, that if you didnít play that melody and you wanted to improvise on the chord structure, it would be having a hint of melody and a little bit of knowledge of rhythm and feeling of your own. So then it sounds like you jazzed it up. Or at least youíre embellishing on the melody with rhythm and attitude and you still are honoring a certain frame work of harmony and melody in order for people not to think you are messing it up.

Freshout: But the ironic thing about free jazz is that for people who arenít familiar with it, they donít hear melody. The complaint is that they donít hear any sort of structure, really.

Dave Burrell: Right, right. And I have to say before I go into the next phase of answering your question, I not only play free jazz, but I do play the blues and other traditional forms including folk music from other countries.

Freshout: Do you have a preference? A favorite genre to play?

Dave Burrell: Well, what has happened with me is that if I know that itís a free jazz audience, and Iím not playing that, theyíre not very comfortable with me not playing what they came to hear. So it seems that organically it comes from the composition I write. This idea of, Ďalright, Iím in this Mary had a little lamb box, and I canít get out unless I find my window.í And if I open that window, I hope Iím aloud what I consider to be the common sense rules of high art to get out there on my own and not lose everybody. So, I never just started playing with the idea of Ďok if you donít like it and canít follow it, than too bad. This is me and this is my thing.í But I think that each artist has a different criteria.

Freshout: Well, we can hear in your music that you have definitely broken the confines of the restrictive box. Which, really, is a good way to define avant garde jazz.

Dave Burrell:
Well, yes. [Going back to Coltrane,] what he did with being so very, very boxed in the form that I just described, was heíd embellish on the melody to the point where he forced open a window or door in the very beginning. And then when he got out there melodically, you could say, ĎOh thatís a red note, he was playing all blue within the spectrum.í Some people would say thatís a wrong note. And others would say, ĎNow itís wrong, so its better!í And other people would say, ďOh, thatís too harsh I canít go there cause I can’t understand it anymore.Ē And I remember when I first heard him, I thought ďA-ha! What happened to the chord progression of this great nursery rhyme? What did he do? Did he lose his place or did he do it deliberately?Ē And then we all decided, us students of the music of the time (and I still am), that he did it deliberately. And therefore he can do that as an artist because heís proven that he can stay within the guidelines. So itís almost as if you want to make a couple of loops around the field and no body can catch you before you make the touchdown. Its absurd, but you can do that. And I think musically he was able to do that kind of acrobatic type of experimentation in his early avant garde years and still come out and land on his feat like cat that was thrown out and landed on all fours.

Freshout: But do you think the goal of free jazz is to break the confines and boundaries? What about the relation to the sounds? Whatís the significance there?

Dave Burrell: Well I think that once you look at the history of say, one of the great innovators, than you can see a pattern. Of course in [Coltraneís] case, itís very evident as you can follow the many, many recordings and see ďA-ha, yeah, yeah. He used to be only here and hereí and also later on see where he was in the 50ís, 60ís and 70ís. But he was not breaking. In his mind he was mastering his instrument, but the material that he was soloing changed. He started writing pieces that were more geared towards where he wanted to go on his instrument. So you had pieces that were say, the sweet A love Supreme,that were spiritually motivated that he could do the kinds of things on his horn that he wanted to express. And he did express them in the privacy of his own practicing. Itís like, ĎOkay well, maybe I should write a piece like this that just lets me legitimately play out. Outside of the realm.í So, as that strong model, other horn players would come and say, ďOh yeah right, Iím just starting where Coltrane left off.í And the problem with that was, ĎOh well, but you donít have the background to do that. Youíre not that well grounded.í And weíd hear the difference. We wouldnít hear that anchor or how deep it is.

Freshout: As if, thenÖ the sound of the instrument is in the emotion. Or vice versa.

Dave Burrell: Yeah, yeah.

Freshout: Now, what about composition, then? While itís not all strategically composed, wouldnít you say that a person with a musically trained ear can catch on faster? With a better sense of understanding for patterns and whatnot? Or, in other words, do you think that for people who donít really understand compositionÖis it harder for them to gain appreciation?

Dave Burrell: Well, I think that if you look at everybody all over the worlds whoís doing it, they have a right to freedom of expressing themselves, right? You could say its freedom of speech. Especially in an artistic context. But you tell on yourself and the audience needs to have some sort of warmth, and they have to get a sense that you know what youíre doing. Otherwise, it becomes very boring and evident very quickly.

Freshout: But I mean if someone were to come into a show and they had no background in playing music or if they didnít understand anything about composition, would it be harder for them to catch on? Harder for them to like the music?

Dave Burrell: Well yeah, in recent years it has become something of a challenge [for an audience member] to say, ĎIím gonna sit there for an hour and a half or 45 minutes with my eyes closed and Iím gonna be into everything that the band plays.í And itíll seem that the drummer has no real beat going. So heís busy finding freedom. And everybody else is just into their own thing. And what is it thatís grabbing you? Whatís making you stay there making you grounded or into it? I think itís a combination. Youíre supposed to be playing off each other and in some cases a strong motif. Like with John Coltraneís One Up, One Down that he played at the Newport Jazz Festival. The energy from the collective ensemble became greater as the momentum from the solo expanded and the coherency of the texture thickened along with your emotional feeling being provoked you have a respect for the music because of the experience, the vibrations from the music were filling up the entire room. So ultimately when I heard this kind of excellence coming from an experienced group of musicians, Iíd think, ĎOh man, this something that I would like to do, but I know I need to practice a whole lot more because obviously it takes mastering the instrument, far greater than where I am right now. This was in the 1960ís.

Freshout: How much do you practice these days?

Dave Burrell: When Iím home for a long period of time, I can get comfortable with about five or six hours a day.

Freshout: How often do you listen to music?

Dave Burrell: It comes in waves. It usually involves a project I have to do. Right now Iím arranging Pucciniís La Boheme. Iíve also written operas of my own. And I do the same thing that Iíve described with a jazz situation with singers and dancers.

Freshout: Where?

Dave Burrell: In Philadelphia. Europe and Asia too. And other cities in the east coast.

Freshout: Oh yeah! You just came back from Europe, right? Iím amazed youíve been traveling around so much recently. It must be demanding.

Dave Burrell: Yeah it is, and after you get used to being on the road, you get hardened. But itís the kinda thing where you can’t be only in America and really make a living. So you have to go to other countries. This year, Iíve already been to Europe seven times. And I have two more tours to do. One, next week, I go to Italy than to Slovenia, and then to Amsterdam where I play for a week. I start at midnight in Amsterdam. A place called Bimhuis (pronounced: bim-house) a very, very hot joint. And then I go to Boudreaux for a festival. Lupciana.

Freshout: Do you have a favorite European country?

Dave Burrell: I like Italy and Spain. Right now, for the music, they seem to be really up on it. It used to always be France.

Freshout: It seems Europeans love it. Itís more widely received there. Do you feel that Europe is more susceptible to your music?

Dave Burrell: They like it more, you know, as a collective community.

Freshout: Why do you think that is?

Dave Burrell: I think they appreciate everything American. Weather itís directly or indirectly. From fashion to rock and roll.

Freshout: So if youíre traveling around all the time, what makes Philadelphia youíre home?

Dave Burrell: Well, for me, Philadelphia is good because being in New York for about 15 years straight was really closing in on me. So I needed to step back and I had tried other places, other cities. But just for a really good strong east coast city without being stressed out in New York, Philadelphia is good. You can breathe more.

Freshout: Wait, you were raised in Hawaii werenít you?

Dave Burrell: Yeah, but I was born in Ohio. And I started off in Harlem, New York when I was a little kid. And then we went from New York back to Ohio and then to Hawaii. And then I would go back to Louisiana, where my fatherís side of the family was in New Orleans. But the Hawaii part opened my eyes, whether I knew it at the time or not, to a whole melting pot of the pacific that was so very trendy at the time. And I would never have had that experience if I didnít go there. So I can borrow from the cultures of the East, and the merchant seaman that I was hanging out with as a teenager were telling me all about South America and Australia and Southeast Asia. And we were playing from the scales with the string instruments and sit around on the beach and justÖ be at these surfing parties. Like you know, in those beach movies. (chuckles)

Freshout: Is it true you were in a rock and roll band?

Dave Burrell: Yeah, I had a rhythm and blues band. And the R&B band was copying The Penguins. I was playing by ear, boogie-woogie and R&B. Fats Domino used to always sing and Jerry Lee Lewis then.

Freshout: What about now? What direction do you see the jazz scene moving towards in the modern times?

Dave Burrell: Well, the group I just heard in Istanbul was called Polar Bear which was really interesting. They had one member playing a laptop computer and two saxophones, bass and drums. They were mixing electronics with a freedom we know so well. In Serbia, I heard a street player, a violinist in particular, with gypsy sounding scales woven into what they were doing. But no matter where you go it seems to be universal that everyone likes to take the scales that they first initiate and then from there, start to trail some melodic lines and thatís what all of us have in common.

Freshout: So, do you ever feel like, since youíve been doing this for so longÖ do you ever just feel stuck?

Dave Burrell: Yeah, I used to. I was stuck in the 70ís. I started to think, well, I can only play so much and Iím not really that satisfied with where Iím at so what can I do? I practice so long and so hard, maybe I have to go solo. I wanted to grow more and I was confined as a side man in different groups. And I didnít think I was growing fast enough. So I went to Japan and started playing with a Japanese bassist. And he was playing different kinds of scales. And we started playing a little bit free, and other times they didnít like that. They wanted to hear the music Charlie Parker played for example. So it became a sort of a challenge to know ahead of time if we could go into our freedom thing, or if weíd have to go back to tradition, because the audience would be very skeptical of free if we didnít have the traditional credentials.

Freshout: So you got unstuck by traveling. Freeing yourself ofÖ.

Dave Burrell: That was one of the outlets. When I came back I knew a whole lot more about the Eastern way of playing instruments. The different flutes and tonalities of the scales. And the spirituality I found in that country. I had heard from other musicians what a beautiful experience they had. And I came back with the same inspiration. And other kinds of masters on other instruments, traditional instruments of the country and regions, masters of other art forms too. I was inspired by it. So I thought okay, the more I travel, the more inspiration Iím able to get.

Freshout: Thatís what I had wanted to go into next. Can you talk about the spiritual aspect of playing? It seems like maybe the most important aspect.

Dave Burrell: Yeah, it is an important aspect. You know, when we first started playing free at jam sessions, weíd say weíre trying to learn this piece by Miles Davis, trying to lean Autumn Leaves, and after we finished going through a regular jam session, weíd turn off the lights and play free. And I remember Ornette Colman being very, very popular then. And he didnít have a pianist in his group. But, I didnít know what I was supposed to do (laughs) so I started making stuff up. And it would sound really incredibly awkward or out of place. And I would think, Ďno, no no, thatís not workingí and it was a time to try out new things. Everyone was doing it- the front line, the horns. So I started to play what they were playing. I doubled them. And that was difficult cause when you have a line like (mimics dissonant sound of horns). So, I tried to do that and if I couldnít do it exactly Iíd make an attempt at doing it. Iíd make mistakes, but intelligent mistakes (laughs). Then other times Iíd go against the grain. And after awhile Iíd have a combination that I felt comfortable with. And youíd record yourselves, listen back, or even videos, and say, ĎOh man, was I moving around like that? Oh, it looks awful!í OrÖ ĎI really look cool now!í (laughs)

Freshout: So is it even possible to explain how it feels? I mean, when improvising, are you thinking about what youíre playing or does it kind of just flow out spontaneously?

Dave Burrell: Well, of course youíre nervous. And then you have this rush. And the combination of the nervousness and the rush, feeding off the audience, and then that vibe is in the room, and then itís ďWAAAHĒ (dissonant sound). So, sometimes if its packed house and people are sitting on the floor and you know itís just charged with electricity, itís so much easier to get ideas out. But I remember the skepticism of the 70ís, when everything was sorta funk and sorta fusion, and you were sticking out like a sore thumb for not going with the disco flow. So, I was trying to please the audience, with the club owners and producers. And after a while I said hey, you know I gotta please me. But you can’t always just play for yourself either. You get that Ivory Tower mentality. And I became really introverted and I hated it. But on the other hand, I remember once being really inspired to play very hard and with so much emotion because I felt happy. And so it has a lot to do with your private life. And health. If youíre happy already before you go to the concert I think itís a fingerprint in a way, every time. You canít lie when youíre up there. So, how true were you to yourself and the music you were playing?

Freshout: Do you ever feel insecurities when youíre playing with other people, especially since so much of it is spontaneous? Has anyone ever played anything where you were like, ďwhat the hell are you doing?Ē

Dave Burrell: Yeah, thereís insecurity. And yeah, all the time. Especially if you didnít pick who youíre playing with. I remember once when I played something in Sao Paulo, South America and the piano player that was supposed to make it couldnít, so they called me as a sub. And everyoneís was like ďAwwwÖ whereís the other guyĒ so right away I felt really insecure. This was in 1990. It was all good musicians that Iíve never really played with as a group. So I knew what my strong points were. And when I had an opportunity to play a big spread of notes, I did it, like a peacock, and the bass player went ďOh no!Ē He didnít like it. (laughs)

Freshout: Why not?

Dave Burrell: Because in his view it was out of context. It was something he hadnít heard before even though I had the right to do it. Then there is attitude, you know. Seniority. And musicians who have rightfully earned the permit to be up there with you but they came from a different part of town, a different road. And you all meet together on a stage in a foreign country and you have your own following- the people in the audience who came for you. Or maybe people in the audience who came for everyone but you.

Freshout: With all your experience, would you say you have a favorite decade so far?

Dave Burrell: Right now. This decade. I feel safer in terms of being a professional. I think part of that comes with the experience and the seniority.

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