Dave Burrell | Steve Swell | Turning Point | No Business Records

Dave Burrell – piano | Steve Swell – trombone

All compositions by Dave Burrell, Lanikai Sounds Publishing Co. (BMI). Recorded live at the Rosenbach Museum and Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, PA, on the 19th January, 2013 by Steve Swell. Mastered by Arūnas Zujus at MAMAstudios. Liner notes by Ed Hazell. Photos by Peter Gannushkin / DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET | Design by Oskaras Anosovas. Produced by Danas Mikailionis and Ed Hazell. Co-producer – Valerij Anosov

Tracklist: 1. One Nation [6’52”] 2. Battle at Gettysburg [3’39”] 3. Church Picnic Celebration [5’32”] 4. Paradox of Freedom [11’03”] 5. Disease Hits Contraband Camp [5’35”] 6. Fancy Trade Nightmare [3’52”] 7. Battle at Vicksburg [8’26”]


Dave Burrell | Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Dave Burrell and the Paradox of Freedom

Dave Burrell’s Turning Point, the third in a series of five suites commemorating the people and events of the Ainerican Civil War, is one of the crowning achievements in his career. A mature and passionate work, it weaves together 150 years of American history and music into a piece that grapples with some of the most horrifying moments in American history and yet remains profoundly hopeful. Born after a nine-month gestation period of historical research and rehearsals, the music evokes the harrowing events of mid-nineteenth century America through a vivid mix of sound imagery, stylistic references, and improvisation in an attempt to come to terms with the Civil War and its legacy.

It’s an enormous undertaking, yet Burrell succeeds in portraying a vast landscape of war and social upheaval by working on a modest scale, with just trombonist Steve Swell as his partner. As Burrell points out, Swell has the tradition-informed creativity to make genuine contributions to Burrell’s music. “Steve is inspired by Roswell Rudd and Grachan Moncur Ill, both of whom I worked with. He not only knows the avant-garde, but he played in Lionel Hampton’s band, Burrell says.. And we’ve been together on projects with William Parker, so I was very familiar with what he could do. I felt that having Steve was like having an entire brass section.”

Their duo project was just one of many performances that Burrell has done as composer-in-residence at the Rosenbach Museum and Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia since 2006. With a collection of books and papers of writers such as Marianne Moore, James Joyce, and Lewis Carroll, the Rosenbach is one of the preeminent literary archives in the world. As composer-in-residence, Burrell had previously brought to life through music the Rosenbach’s holdings of documents related to African American history, Moore’s poetry, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. By far the most ambitious of his Rosenbach projects is a multi-year series devoted to the American Civil War of which Turning Point is a part. The series began in 2011 on the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter and will end in 2015, the sesquicentennial of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.

In many ways, Burrell’s music follows in the footsteps of the jazz world’s greatest imagist—Duke Ellington. Ellington could evoke the city of Delhi with a clarinet imitating a Mynah bird’s song, or create a mental picture of a Harlem brownstone by capturing in music the sweet cacophony of voices rising up through an airshaft. Burrell also uses specific programmatic elements such as the trombone mimicking the whinny of a horse in battle. His liberal use of the blues, gospel, jazz, popular song, and free improvisation gives the music a historical sweep that connects past and present in an all-embracing American panorama.

Like Ellington, Burrell is a musical poet who celebrates African American culture. But Turning Point is something more nuanced and multidimensional than a simple celebration. Just as there were opposing sides in the war, opposing forces are at work in the music—joy is tempered by sorrow, historical myth weighed against historical reality. Even the title itself has two possible meanings. 1863 was a military turning point in the war, but it was also a turning point for our national culture with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed African Americans held in bondage in the Confederate states. Any honest account of war—and Burrell’s music is unstintingly honest—must necessarily consider both the bravery and determination of the African Americans caught up in the great social transformation and the horrors and tragedy of battle endured by soldiers. “This was the year when the war became more clearly defined,” Burrell says, “when it became the war no one wanted to admit it was prior to that—a war to end slavery!’

One Nation?

Turning Point opens with “One Nation,” which Burrell has used to introduce each suite since the second one. He writes a new composition with that title for each performance as a way of summarizing the progress of the war. It is a title that is actually at war with its content, a title that asserts unity as it pictures a deeply divided country, a paradox in a work that’s riddled with them.

In this version, Burrell imagines both Union and Confederate soldiers marching to the drill song “I Don’t Know But I’ve Been Told,” with each side shouting out what they don’t like about the other. He and Swell play a marching cadence motif a half step apart to generate a dissonance symbolic of the tensions between Northern and Southern world views, and then introduce the chant on top of it.

The back and forth between Northern and Southern viewpoints is indicative of Burrell’s own struggle to understand both sides of the war. “I knew that if I went in one direction politically, then I had to balance it out by honoring the other tradition,” he says. “I had to take myself out of it and look at both sides, so that I could understand why it was, in fact, a war, why there was a reason to fight for your way of life.”

Gettysburg and Vicksburg

Commemorations of two military turning points in the war—the battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg—frame the Emancipation Proclamation sections of the suite. The two conflicts ended within a day of each other and effectively turned the tide in favor of the Union forces.

A staggering 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or reported missing in the slaughter at Gettysburg. Burrell and Swell paint a suitably chaotic and tumultuous picture of those three bloodiest days in American history. “I asked Steve if he had a horse whinny, and he played one for me,” Burrell says. “In response, I play hoof beats, very percussive. Then I said to Steve, okay give me some gunshots and he went Pop! Pop! Pop! on the trombone. We used as many other kinds of cacophony as we could to depict the battle.”

The Union siege of Vicksburg, a city on the Mississippi River that served as a strategically important Confederate supply center, ended the day after Gettysburg. During the siege the civilian population of the city sheltered in caves from Union artillery bombardments and were reduced to eating rats and mules as the city’s food supplies dwindled. Burrell focuses on the battle’s aftermath as both relief and sorrow overwhelm civilians and soldiers. “I drew from my experience singing ‘Ave Maria’ when I was a kid and that kind of bass line and religious reverence,” Burrell explains, “but I started making turns in it, changing the chords and moving out of tonality and so on. I asked Steve to imitate the sound of a bugle to put in along with that.”

Emancipation and the Paradoxes of Freedom

“Church Picnic Celebration” begins the four-part meditation on the Emancipation Proclamation, as it should, in a joyful mood. “Slaves rarely had opportunities to celebrate,” Burrell observes, “Church gave them their chance to celebrate the Lord. So that’s the setting of ‘Church Picnic Celebration.’ I wanted the simplicity of a church hymn, this basic hymn style that I imagined would be going on if some one who was nearly illiterate was on the organ or the piano.”

The piano solo “The Paradox of Freedom” is the emotional counterweight to the preceding composition and the heart of the suite. Here Burrell attempts to capture the welter of contradictory thoughts and emotions overwhelming freed slaves as they faced the nearly insurmountable obstacles of the northward migration. “I use a boogie line that my mother used to play; there was a dance that went with it called “Truckin’.” I decided to use that line and try to do something with my right hand that would give the idea of migration and maybe an overreaction to freedom. The paradox is what kind of freedom are we talking about?”

In our admiration of the moral force and the historical significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the untenable situation of the newly freed African Americans is often lost. Burrell cannot and does not overlook their terrible dilemma. Yes, the Southern slaves were free, but what did that mean for them? As his research progressed, Burrell began to imagine “what it was like to have no money and nowhere to go but to the Union lines,” he says. “You would have no food, no water, and sometimes no family if they couldn’t keep up with you. So it was a paradox that, well you’re free, but you don’t have anything after you leave the South. You have to move on, and you’re scared to death because you don’t know what the future holds.

“It was very interesting to see how much it was like what I lived through in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act,” he continues. “An African American couldn’t just say, ‘Okay, well now that I can do more things, I have more freedom, I can call Molly and go have a soda.’ It didn’t work like that, it took years and years.” Turning Point is Burrell’s attempt to come to grips with the new struggles that were paradoxically ushered in by Emancipation Proclamation and in the process perhaps shed light on subsequent African American struggles for freedom and equality.

Burrell’s research also turned up the subjects for the next two sections of the suite. “Disease Hits Contraband Camp” is a headline from a Civil War era Virginia newspaper that leapt out at him as he worked in the Rosenbach collection. African Americans who fled the south in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation could no longer be returned to their owners as they had been under the Fugitive Slave Act. After 1863, they were considered contraband—smuggled goods—after they crossed Union lines. “The women and children would go as far as they could and then they’d set up camp,” Burrell explains. Often the weak and exhausted migrants found little relief in these camps, which offered meager shelter, scant food, and unsanitary conditions. The immediate cost of freedom for these people was high indeed, and their suffering did not end as they moved north.

Burrell found the story that inspired “Fancy Trade Nightmare” in documents housed at Temple University’s Charles L Blockson Afro-American Collection. It’s a heartbreaking incident in which a slave woman with a beautiful baby daughter turns her child over to Union troops in the hope that she will escape the fancy trade—sexual slavery—in the south, where concubine slaves sold for six or seven times more than a working slave. “As I developed the piece, it started to have rhythms that are found in reggae,” Burrell explains. “As I heard when I was in Dakar, Senegal, those rhythms actually came from Africa to the New World. I tried to put the stride and reggae rhythms together.”

The Reality of Hope

War, starvation, disease-ridden migrant camps, these are hardly uplifting topics. Yet in a very real way, hope rises out of this music inspired by so much hardship, death, and turmoil. The vibrancy and power of the musical culture developed by African Americans in the 1800s and early 1900s—music that informs every note of Turning Point—is lasting testimony to the people who invented it and who persevered and triumphed over adversity. Burrell’s music seems to tell us that perhaps their example and their music can inspire us with the hope that we can triumph over the challenges that history lays before us.

The very act of trying to understand the war is a hopeful act for Burrell. “I see hope in the discussions we have after each concert,” he says. “People, including historians from this area, would say they felt uplifted because their understanding of this war was clarified. Perhaps the more we try to understand war—including what is probably the most significant war in American history—the more hopeful we can be that music like this will serve as an inspiration for peace during the next one. That is in itself uplifting.” — Ed Hazell


Steve Swell | Photo by Peter Gannushkin


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2 thoughts on “Dave Burrell | Steve Swell | Turning Point | No Business Records

  1. Although firmly associated with the avant-garde, pianist Dave Burrell often harkens back to pre-bop styles in his execution. On Turning Point he explicitly acknowledges such sources in his writing too. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a sequence inspired by the American Civil War -what Burrell terms a war to end slavery. While composer in residence at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum where this recital was performed, Burrell researched the people and events of the conflict. The collection here is actually the third in a mooted series of five suites commemorating the cataclysmic upheaval, though the first to appear on disc, courtesy of a recording by Burrell’s accomplice trombonist Steve Swell.

    In spite of the weighty subject matter, the music sometimes sounds playful and even at times humorous, particularly in the first half of the 45 minute program. In part that’s testament to the attentiveness the participants pay to both each other and the charts. Either can pick up on a move into open form in the blink of an eye. Burrell maintains a percussive syncopated approach which incorporates ragtime and stride alongside oddly accented dissonances. Swell often seems as if he might be pursuing a vocal line in his melismatic rendition of melody which often blossoms into expressive muted effects.

    In the liners Ed Hazell helpfully explains Burrell’s concept for each piece and reveals some programmatic elements to the proceedings. “One Nation” starts with a prancing rhythm from the piano, replete with offkilter discords, and later nods to Civil War songs like “Yankee Doodle.” Encapsulated in this is a marching cadence motif which Burrell and Swell voice half a step apart to symbolize the tensions between Union and Confederate soldiers. Later in “Battle At Gettysburg,” Swell channels horse whinnies with blowsy chortling trombone and the pianist responds by emulating hoof beats.

    “Paradox of Freedom” signals a change of pace and tone. It deals with aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation, when former slaves were free, but with no food, shelter or belongings to their names. Tackled by Burrell alone, the piece is framed by a boogie line his mother used to play, before he contrasts a tender refrain with increasingly thunderous cacaphony. At 11 minutes it’s the longest track and one of the highlights. The somber “Disease Hits Contraband Camp” follows, featuring spirited interplay between rambunctious trombone and chiming piano, while the concluding “Battle at Vicksburg” begins in a welter of ominous minor chords but ultimately conveys a valedictory lilt.

    Burrell has fashioned a remarkable performance notable for its widescreen filmic sweep which manages to be at the same time restrained but also achingly exuberant.

  2. Although Dave Burrell was one of the original, key pianists of the “new thing” and appeared on many critical recordings that have much more than historical importance, he is not readily classifiable. He has as time goes by given us a very particular way, a style all his own, along with a compositional approach that falls into no camp except that of the Burrell school. When I had the pleasure to hear his BYG recording of La Boheme years ago, it woke me up to a sort of fearlessness and original stance from Maestro Burrell on the possibilities classical form had for both Afro-American tradition and the free approach and also made me very aware that Burrell was not content to follow only the prevailing trends. And stemming from that time I have always welcomed new examples of his music and come to appreciate fully his originality.

    Trombonist Steve Swell in his own way is in the same league. His overall sympathies surely come out of the free zone, but he extends that in his own way, having roots in earlier styles as well as an eye to the future. You never quite know where his music will go from year to year, yet you know that whatever comes it will be expressively “Swellian.”

    And so quite understandably we have the two together in an ambitious live date from 2013, Turning Point (No Business CD70).

    It is a composition by Dave Burrell that depicts and commemorates in suite form a critical period in the American Civil War, the third in a series of five such suites by Burrell.

    The music centers around the point in the war where the Northern forces gained momentum, but it also marks the advent of Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.”

    The suite expresses military themes, Afro-American “pre-jazz” roots, and a grand sort of expressiveness that captures the highs and lows, the victories but also the real suffering and sacrifices made, the sorrow and joy of the period.

    It is a tour de force of Burrell today. The simple duo instrumentation aside, the music is deeply expressive and masterful. Swell plays his role to perfection, combining the old and the new. Burrell is an orchestral force on piano, giving us the compositional particularities with ease and grace but also investing the music with the special qualities of his improvisatory originality in the way he articulates and expands/expounds the compositional framework.

    It is a sort of musical monument to a decisive period of American history, the first steps toward Afro-American emancipation and a heightened consciousness of what equality must in the end become. That the struggle has not ended today makes these real beginnings all the more poignant, and Burrell gives us music only he could write, performed in ways perhaps only he and Swell can do full justice to right now, that puts in significant musical forms the hopes, the strife and the first triumphs of the period.

    It is a very moving suite, a beautiful present-day example of Burrell’s unmatched originality in a performance that goes back in time as it goes forward as well.

    Masterful music! Do not miss this!

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