When Dave Burrell performs at the year’s Vision Festival as the recipient of the fest’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award, he no doubt will reach back to the fiery spirit of the 1960s and the free jazz spirit that the annual series celebrates. But Burrell will have one eye focused much further back, to the Harlem Renaissance and the earliest days of jazz in New York City.
The honor, which was announced Wednesday, includes an evening of sets by the honoree in different settings during the New York City summer festival, which runs May 23-May 28 at Roulette. The 77-year-old pianist, composer and history enthusiast said that much of what he will present was “still being determined.” But he volunteered that he was excited to premiere new material from his in-progress Variations: Full Blown Rhapsody, based on the poetry and music of the Harlem Renaissance.
The achievements of Burrell’s lifetime in music aren’t insignificant. He made his first albums in the halcyon days of Paris in the late 1960s, leading bands the included Grachan Moncur III, Sunny Murray and Alan Silva for the esteemed French imprint BYG. He also appeared on Archie Shepp’s BYG releases and continued to work with the saxophonist well into the ‘70s.
While he was regarded as a powerful free-jazz pianist, there were other forces at play within Burrell’s work. His compositions—based largely on his love for ragtime and the music he heard growing up in Hawaii—weren’t often heard until he began a rewarding partnership with saxophonist David Murray in the late ‘80s, resulting in some of the strongest recordings in either performer’s discography.
More recently, Burrell has turned to historical sources as inspiration for his compositions, often with lyrics by poet Monika Larsson, his wife. A residency with the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia (the city he long has called home) resulted in an expansive, five-part song cycle based on the museum’s collection of letters from the American Civil War. (Some of the music can be heard on 2014’s Turning Point, recorded with trombonist Steve Swell.)
The Harlem Renaissance is Burrell’s current fixation, though, and he has been avidly reading biographies of Langston Hughes, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and the “rent party clique” that also included Willie “The Lion” Smith and, even on occasion, the great Duke Ellington.
Burrell has a personal connection to the era as well. His mother worked as a secretary for author and attorney James Welden Johnson in the late 1930s, just after the civil rights leader’s tenure as executive secretary for the NAACP. Burrell is incorporating stories he remembers his parents telling when he was a child into a new jazz opera based on the pages of African American history.
But it’s not just the written history that Burrell is interested in. Long a champion of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, Burrell is finding a new passion for stride pianist James P. Johnson, considered an inspiration to Waller and Art Tatum.
“I found out about [Johnson’s] ‘Carolina Shout’ and I’m learning that currently,” Burrell said. “It’s a rag that is one of his piano roll classics. When he wrote it, it was considered modernistic. It was the link between Scott Joplin and everything that came after. … I started on the ‘Shout’ and found out that he had written the ‘Charleston.’ It’s just so beautiful; James P. Johnson’s playing, it’s overwhelming.”
Burrell will be premiering his Variations: Full Blown Rhapsody (and likely dipping into the “Carolina Stomp”) at Roulette as a part of the festival on May 23, with plans to take the music to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and perhaps other cities.
But rest assured, he will be flexing his muscle with a free-jazz combo, as well, committing at least one set to the music his career and the Vision Festival are both built from.
“They don’t want it to be just one flavor, so to speak,” he said with a laugh.