Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Marion Brown/Dave Burrell: Live at the Black Musicians' Conference, 1981 (NoBusiness, 2018) ****
By Kian Banihashemi
When thinking about Marion Brown and Dave Burrell, I rarely gravitate to anything of this period. In fact, there isn't much of it even recorded or issued; compared to the fire music of the 60s. So, my lack of listening experience with this musical period resulted in mixed emotions, mainly excitement and worry that it would not live up to my expectations for these artists. Dave Burrell has always served as a very capable sideman, and his leading role on the BYG actuel released album Echo was where I first became engulfed into his skillful musicianship. Echo is a large outing with some of most well-known and respected names in free jazz at the time, and it really is no surprise that the album is quite difficult to get into. The musical partnership between Burrell and Brown was revealed to me through some of Brown's first releases, including Juba-Lee and Three for Shepp. While their previous musical partnerships had been rewarding and unique, I never saw their connection at a level of say that between Coltrane and Tyner. I’m glad that this performance displays the closer and more dynamic sides of Burrell and Brown, isolating them from other musicians’ input of ideas. While their relationship is not completely equal, I believe it’s important that the playing not be so leveled out. Having music contain various dynamics and narratives makes it much more interesting and democratic. Even if it can sometimes be individualistic in what directions are taken, there’s a clear sense of collaboration and conciseness in the music.
The setting itself seems to be very intimate, a respectful crowd and varied set list makes this performance a standout in the catalogs of both artists. A couple pieces composed by Brown, three by Burrell, and interestingly enough, two Billy Strayhorn covers. I noticed that there was a tendency for the composer of their respective pieces to be the leader as well, guiding the other musician by setting a well-crafted stage to jump off. The recording quality can be shoddy at times, but never gets in the way of the emotional outpour that this album is able to muster up. Brown and Burrell have gone past their fiery walls of sounds that was sometimes present in their earliest recordings. The passion in Brown's playing cuts through from the first few seconds of the opening track, "Gossip / Fortunado", and continues throughout the rest of the near eighty minute performance. Each note blown is carefully chosen and carries a great weight with it; Marion Brown shows that even in his middle ages he is able to push forward and successfully play "in" and "out" of the pocket. A lot of these songs are in the ballad vein with a clear soulful and bluesy influence. Brown is the elder statesman, showing off his experience while staying true to the tradition. Most of the tunes end up having a clear melodic theme that is easily hummed and remained in my head throughout the day, and while he goes on during his fluid outward playing, Burrell keeps that theme in check for when it's time to come home.
Dave Burrell is much more on the conservative side for the majority of this album, with his compositions taking on a noir atmosphere, without any of the perceived pretentiousness that may accompany such a description. One of the beautiful aspects of Burrell's playing is the diversity he maintains within it. Whether it be the early swingers, or Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor; Burrell can establish himself using the variety of the jazz world around him. In this recording he leans on his more traditional learning, taking Brown along with him for the ride. All three of his compositions play one after the other, these being "Punaluu Peter", "Pua Mae 'Ole", and "Crucifacado". These three songs grant a change in pace that is not only interesting but comforting, like meeting a long-lost friend. On the flip side, the weakest portions of this performance are within the two Billy Strayhorn covers, "My Little Brown Rock" and "Lush Life". There's some interesting moments and it stays very warm and true to form, yet it loses some of its memorability and impact on me. Even though these couple of tracks cut through the flow of what's going on, their inclusion provides a look inside the unbothered and loving minds of these two free jazz giants.
This album has taught me a couple things; first, that I should be on the lookout for more recordings of piano and saxophone duos (a couple of my favorite instruments) and second, to explore and enjoy the later works of jazz musicians. This may be a great place to start within the discography of these two artists, as it mostly increases in intensity the further back you dig. The interplay between them is strong, yet kind and gentle. Brown and Burrell show a definite sense of respect and restraint around each other; their decades of working together accumulate here to create something truly wholesome and gorgeous. Those at UMass Amherst were lucky to able to witness such a musical partnership, and although it only reaches us now through this imperfect recording, this album still feels like a surprise gift that you never knew you wanted. There's a sentimentality in the playing that becomes more familiar as the music progresses, especially if you're already familiar with the music of these artists. This may not be my go-to album for these artists, but it serves as a great reminder of what they're capable of and how well they aged during their tenures as some of the world's greatest musicians.