Music Feature

Free Jazz!

by Samantha Porter
Dave Burrell and Han Bennink at the Philadelphia Art Alliance on January 30th

“Free Jazz! What does this even mean?” Dutch drummer Han Bennink remarks in a small room on the 3rd floor of the Philadelphia Art Alliance. “Does it mean you won’t get paid?” He laughs at his own sarcastic question. Free jazz, he explains, means you can make the music anything you want, which is exactly what he did, playing, for the first time in history, in a duet with world-renowned jazz pianist Dave Burrell. During the exquisite 5 song set Mr. Burrell presented original compositions while still surprising the audience with jazz standard Lush Life, by the great Billy Strayhorn, signifying some of the music that inspires him in his own work. Han, known for avant-garde percussion, illustrated his creativity and showmanship by playing with a fist full of drumsticks and, at one point, using the floor as a drumming surface. Front row on lookers had almost as much fun helping the artists to create the impressive scene.


“It feels like Europe in here,” Mr. Burrell said of the intimate concert. The small rooms in the Philadelphia Art Alliance were filled with listeners anxious to hear what proved to be an exquisite, free jazz music lesson. What Mr. Burrell was alluding to was the closeness he often feels to small audiences. Just before the show Two.One.Five. had an opportunity to meet the two musicians and talk about jazz and its influence on young people today.


The two celebrated artists behaved as old friends, laughing and recounting youthful adventures, some of which seem almost too fantastic to fathom. “I remember breakfast jam sessions in Holland and Sarah Vaughn would show up, or Babs Gonzales shows up!” Burrell remembers. He went on to describe the unbelievably lucky occasion when, from backstage, he watched Miles Davis play an entire concert with his back to the audience, the front row of which was filled with Vogue models. The detailed imagine of that scene was crystal clear, from the greenish blue bugle horn Miles played that night, to the flocks of women he seemingly ignored, in favor of the company of a fellow musician.  They reminisced about the ebbs and flows of the jazz scene in America, as well as abroad. “You realize how international the music is.” Burrell concludes. They agreed that the resurgence of “free jazz” in both Europe and the US brings a certain excitement to their continued work. 


On the topic of inspiration, Han explained that the first time he heard Dave Burrell play he was billed with Philadelphia’s own Jimmy Heath, of the Heath brothers, at the historic Amsterdam club, the Paradiso. Cosmic Relaxation Center Paradiso, as it is formally known, opened in 1968, just as young Europeans like Mr. Bennink were being newly awakened by jazz. As Mr. Burrell described it, “you could lie in sleeping bags on the floor [of the Paradiso] and the whole scene was relaxing and eclectic.” He was almost comforted by the idea that the scene hasn’t changed all that much. “Now, they [young fans] can have their hip hop and they can have jazz, too. They can have their classical and it’s not a thing.” Burrell concluded, “Jazz is new and appropriate, acceptable. Young artists today found something fresh and unselfishly give something fresh and new back to the musical scene.” The music continues to inspire new ideas.


Dave Burrell has enjoyed a long career in the world of jazz and more than 50 years of performing, often alongside other jazz legends like Archie Shepp, a Philadelphia native. Still, Mr. Burrell is gracious and generous with his gift.  Burrell and Bennink concluded our interview by mentioning their fondness for Philadelphia and its rich jazz heritage, making this concert a meaningful event for the first time duo.


The Dave Burrell's and Han Bennink’s concert was brought to Philadelphia Art Alliance by the ARS Nova Workshop, which strives to bring jazz and experimental music into the lives of more Philadelphians. As for Mr. Burrell, beginning in February he will embark on a European tour until fall. For more information about Dave Burrell and his newest album, visit his website. 


Set List

1. The Box (Dave Burrell)

2. Code Name: Cheap Shot (Dave Burrell)

3. Sophisticated Lady (Duke Ellington)

4. Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn)

5. AM Rag (Dave Burrell)

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