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Full Blown Trio (Burrell / Parker / Cyrille)
Buffalo NY, 24 November 2003

Dave Burrell is a difficult figure to pin down. It's not that his music is impossible to grasp. On the contrary, he can be tenderly melodic and deeply rhythmic. But those very qualities, I think, dilute his avant-garde street cred. It doesn't help that he lives not in New York, but in Philadelphia; you don't see Burrell's name come up all that often. But musicians know how valuable he can be: Burrell is a pianist with the entire history of the music under his fingers.

In late November, he brought an all-star trio with William Parker and Andrew Cyrille to Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center on the evening of the season's first big snowstorm. A tall man with a gentle, lilting voice redolent of his childhood home of Hawaii, Burrell was apparently the leader (he made the brief opening remarks), but yielded the stage for the extended unaccompanied solos that opened each of the evening's two sets.

William Parker was first, and with two bows, one above and one below the bridge of his bass, launched a rocking melody that had the dignified cadences of a spiritual. Using double stops, he sounded like an entire, thrumming string orchestra, as colorful and textural as his trademark, pajama-like clothing. Then he added high wordless moans and danced in place, his footsteps resonating on the low concert platform (and still playing with two bows!), creating a teeming forest at night coming alive after a storm. Detuning a string on a single plucked note, the trio entered in a loose, splashy rhythm for the pianist's "Double Heartbeat". Burrell grimaced as he pulled notes out of the baby grand, Parker was impassioned and Cyrille sat calmly behind his kit, playing, as he did for most of the evening, with his eyes closed.

The composition was a history lesson in miniature, a rhythmic whirlwind that coalesced around a little descending unison phrase answered by a raggy, off-center stride piano episode. Parker slapped like Milt Hinton, and Cyrille played ancient vaudevillian licks. Some rumbling from Burrell, arco Parker and grand, annunciatory, almost Tchaikovskian chords introduced the whirlwind of the head, and the breathless journey came to a head-shaking close.

The second set began with Cyrille unaccompanied, long and clean, before shifting to brushes for a ballad reading of "They Say It's Wonderful", with Burrell's almost stride left hand freeing Parker to compose a tender countermelody. After a little vamp on the concluding cadence, Burrell launched a straight stride chorus. The vamp returned and Burrell stretched the melody, and then spanked chords to fracture it into shining fragments. Cyrille played for maybe three minutes on snare and kick drum alone before emerging in tempo for the final eight bars of melody, and it was done, a tour de force that brought the audience of fifty or so to its feet.

Parker and Burrell then launched an original blues. After a minute or two, the blues veered toward the traditional, Burrell striding in the left hand and Parker walking four and varying the volume of his notes to build drama. When Cyrille entered (deliciously behind the beat and right in the pocket), it could have been Sam Jones and Louis Hayes up there. But Burrell's imagination is as restless as it is wide-ranging and he quickly worried a lick of the turnaround like he worried the closing cadence of the Rodgers and Hart standard. It was a signal to go outside for a short episode, gathering shards of melody that Burrell reassembled into "I'm In The Mood for Love". He spun a little figure in the high register that Parker echoed, and Cyrille's drums closed the set as they began it, unaccompanied.

So much for what I heard. What did it mean? If you ask me, the references to melody and traditional forms and the solid straight-ahead technique flashed by all three players put the freer playing in context. I got a powerful message that at the beginning of the new century, the music played that night—rigorous yet free, technically impeccable yet adventurous, humorous and as serious as your life—this music is the mainstream. If so, it couldn't be in better hands.