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Celebrating Pianist and Composer Dave Burrell at the Vision Festival — and on The Checkout

Not many jazz musicians possess a scope as wide as Dave Burrell’s.

A pianist who first emerged during the late 1960s, in wild-and-woolly ensembles led by saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, he also has a firm grasp on the stride language of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. His body of work as a composer includes operatic and chamber works — but he remains a fearless paragon of free improvisation, with peers like bassist William Parker and saxophonist David Murray.

Burrell, 77, will be recognized this year at the 23rd annual Vision Festival, which is bestowing a lifetime achievement honor. But it’s not as if Burrell will sit back and bask in his accolades. He’ll perform in three separate sets on May 23.

He gave us an early taste of that music during a recent visit to the WBGO studio, and talked about drawing inspiration from sources as far-flung as the Harlem Renaissance (on “Full Blown Rhapsody”) and the civil rights struggle (“Paradox of Freedom”). Listen to our conversation, punctuated by four sublime solo piano performances, in this podcast episode of The Checkout.

Among other things, Burrell reflected on his half-century-long connection with Shepp, who will be joining him — and making a long-overdue Vision Festival debut — in a group with Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums. Recalling the groundbreaking Shepp bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Burrell fondly described a musical frame of reference that strained against the limits of style.

Credit Guy Le Querrec
Archie Shepp at the Pan-African Festival in Algiers, 1969: Sunny Murray, Grachan Moncur III, Clifford Thornton, Shepp, Alan Silva, Burrell

“The book at the time had Sousa marches, Hollywood movie theme songs, Archie Shepp poetry, and Ellington pieces, in a medley,” he said. “It was very, very engaging and interesting, because I never thought of Sousa marches in that context — to be marching along and suddenly drop into ‘The Shadow of Your Smile,’ and then continue into a poem.”

Burrell also discussed his acclaimed jazz opera Windward Passages, conceived in partnership with his wife, the poet and librettist Monkia Larsson. Recorded in a solo piano format in 1979, the piece has recently been revisited by an orchestra in Europe, for possible future release. In the meantime, Burrell graciously played one piece from the suite, “Margie Pargie” (also known as “A.M. Rag”) in our studio.


The 23rd Vision Festival will be held from May 23 to 28 at Roulette in Brooklyn.

Video: Chris Tobin

Recording: Corey Goldberg

Producer: Simon Rentner

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A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.