About an hour and 20 minutes into their event at Third Life Studio in Somerville Sunday night, guitarist Garrison Fewell asked pianist Dave Burrell if he wanted to play “the tango” or a solo. “Let’s do a little bit of the tango,” answered Burrell, “and slant it.”
The event was called “Outside Music, Inside Voices,” after Fewell’s in-progress book project of that name, sub-titled: “Dialogues on Improvisations, Spirituality and Creative Music.” Burrell is one of 25 interview subjects in the book, and the evening was a mix of music and conversation. Though they had talked, Burrell and Fewell had never played together before. Their rehearsal consisted of pre-show conversations and a brief soundcheck.
Burrell came up during the first wave of free jazz (he graduated from Berklee in 1965) and he told us that his indoctrination into the scene included marathon sessions in his Lower East Side New York apartment with the legendary drummer Sunny Murray (fresh from Cecil Taylor’s band) that left his finger’s bleeding.
Fewell came up a generation later at Berklee, and although he had long listened to free music, he was for much of his career an “inside” player. Until, he said, in 2002, he announced to his friend and editor, Ed Hazell, “I’m coming out.” He didn’t mean it in the Gary Burton way. Hazell told Fewell then that there are a lot of ways to play outside. Fewell’s way was lyrical and melodic, and his albums since that time have always framed free improvisations with various organiztional strategies. One Fewell project is called “Variable Density,” and the compositions, as such, move through different predetermined episodes of ensemble textures, with the specific notes, rhythms, and harmonies left up to the individual players.
At the Third Life Studio, the duo began with a minor blues by Burrell called “The Box.” “We’ll pour our all of our emotions in to this minor blues,” Burrell said. It was a lovely blues, grounded by Burrell’s left-hand stride patterns, embellished by melodic flights from both players, and some lucid counterpoint.
Other pieces were less grounded in form — simply the spontaneous sonic response of one player to the other. His one solo piece, “Paradox of Freedom” (based on his research into the freed slaves enlisted to fight in the Civil War) was the most thunderous. But it too was based in a clear meldoy and a boogie-woogie bassline between eruptions.
Fewell’s “Universe” (“Because why leave anything out?,” he said by way of introduction) was the most “out” extended excursion of the evening. It began with the guitarist tapping his strings with a drum stick and his fingers, conjuring African balafon and kalimba with his muted tones. Each player was extremely sensitive to dynamics, fashioning atonal filligree around each other’s gestures, Burrell creating the loudest outbursts with the occasional heavy chord or stabbed single note. But more often than not, his figures drifted with bits of pedal sustain or harp-like arpeggeios. The piece ended with some big major chords from Burrell and some sighing figures from Fewell.
The next, untitled, piece sometimes suggested a bit of Satie in Burrell’s chording, and sometimes a hint of Brahms’s Lullabye in fragments of melody. Fewell played his strings with a violin bow, conjuring a realm where African string music met a European viola da gamba on some polyphonic plane. The tango, though “slanted,” was a return to form.
Between selections the two players talked about improvisation, “free” music, spirituality. Hazell joined them onstage to ask Burrell a couple of questions and Burrell talked about those early days on the Lower East Side, the 1969 Pan-African Festival in Algeria, and his encounter with a moose at his summer home in Sweden. A couple of times during the evening, Burrell and Fewell, talking about spirituality in the music, referred to Henry Threadgill’s comment in “Outside Music, Inside Voices,” was the “spiritual intent” of the music, whatever the personal beliefs of the artist or the audience. The form of the evening was in that intent.