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The Jazz Swinger: Dave Burrell at An die Musik, Dec. 5

December 8, 2009
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Sometimes it seems that jazz is divided into two warring camps: those who value tradition so much that they’re skeptical of any hint of dissonant modernism, and those who are so committed to the avant-garde that they consider pretty renditions of standards a sell-out. Dave Burrell swept away this false dichotomy with a swing of the arm during his brilliant solo piano concert at An Die Musik Sunday.

The 69-year-old Philadelphia resident, wearing a sloping, black-leather cap, a dark blazer, and a grizzled, gray goatee, began his show with a half-hour medley that ran both the oldest and newest approaches to jazz piano through a blender. He began with his own composition, “The Edge,” a stately march that evoked a 19th-century promenade before shifting to staccato stabs of off-kilter chords. This segued into another original, “The Box,” which knotted up grand clusters of noise—Burrell even rolled the back of his knuckles over the keys a la Cecil Taylor—and then unraveled those knots with bright melodies, first played in the right hand, then in the left.

He segued again into a third original, “Snake River Waltz,” but now his left hand was bouncing back and forth between octaves like the great stride pianists of the 1930s, even if the right hand remained stubbornly in the 1990s, conjuring up new chords as if from a mad scientist’s test tube. The striding left hand never stopped, but the right hand picked up a familiar melody, Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and Burrell was soon twisting and turning the tune at different angles but never losing the joyful syncopation.

The burly musician was joined only by the venue’s seven-foot Mason & Hamelin grand piano and more than a hundred years of jazz piano ideas that still need stitching into a whole cloth. Metaphorical needle in hand, Burrell revamped “As Time Goes By” from the movie Casablanca and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” into post-bop modernism. He introduced his newest composition, “A Story of Rag,” which suggested the avant-garde possibilities of even the pre-jazz music known as ragtime.

“I’ve been playing it every day since I wrote it,” he said of the latter piece, “trying to get it to swing. But there’s only so much you can do till you’re no longer playing it and it’s playing you.”

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