Clubland: Jazz pianist Dave Burrell closes World of Piano series at Northampton Center for the Arts
Dave Burrell performs Friday at the Northampton Center for the Arts. Purchase photo reprints »
Pianist Dave Burrell is in town for the end of the world — the World of Piano concert series, which is wrapping up after 11 years of bringing jazz luminaries to the Valley for solo performances. Burrell plays its final show at the Northampton Center for the Arts Friday at 7:30 p.m.
The series, produced by Glenn Siegel for the Center for the Arts, has given the spotlight to an impressive array of pianists, some little-known, some legends. The first year alone featured Jaki Byard, Stanley Cowell and Paul Bley, masters all, and the series went on to welcome Andrew Hill, Marilyn Crispell, Ethan Iverson, Vijay Iyer, Uri Caine, Ran Blake, Matthew Shipp, Larry Willis, Myra Melford and many more. There were 34 shows in all.
The World of Piano series is ending because the Center for the Arts as a venue is coming to an end.
“When the city gave the building to the original private developer,“ Siegel said, “it was with the stipulation that they needed to create this community arts space for 30 years — and that was 29½ years ago.”
The decision was made to have one last concert and not another whole season, and Center for the Arts director Penny Burke wanted to bring back an artist who’d already performed in the series; Dave Burrell got the nod.
“He’s a good choice in the sense that his playing is kind of encyclopedic,” said Siegel, who pointed out that Burrell has incorporated ragtime, Cecil Taylor-like cacophony, a medley of West Side Story tunes and much more into his repertoire. “He’s not been scared to use it all.”
One of Burrell’s signature songs is an early original called “Margie Pargie,” a bouncy rag that sounds like a sunny sky with one mischievous cloud floating through. A newer piece called “Expansion” is almost a sequel — the rhythmic bounce is still there, but the melody and harmony has mutated into wilder and weirder shapes and colors.
Standards by Monk, Ellington and Coltrane might pop up in his concerts, or “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Burrell, like so many other internationally lauded musicians Siegel has helped bring to town over these decades, has a discography full of small-label recordings that can be hard to track down — yet lucky Valley folks can just take a short drive or walk across town to hear and see the artist play live. Not many communities have such an opportunity.
For Siegel, part of the inspiration to continually bring jazz talent to local spaces comes from respecting the area’s historic past.
“I was around when the Valley was known internationally as a jazz destination point in the ’70s and ’80s — Marion Brown lived here, Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman,” he said. “I have posters in my living room with a week’s jazz activity between Hampshire and UMass, which included Sun Ra’s Arkestra, Randy Weston Septet, Cecil McBee/Abdullah Ibrahim duo. ... I feel like we need to keep that going.”
Reflecting on the many pianists who’ve played Northampton during the series’ run, Siegel shared warm stories about the shows and the musicians, some very obscure, like the late Chris Anderson.
“It’s kind of cliche to talk about ‘unsung jazz performers’ because there’s so many of them,” Siegel said. “But he was really below the radar, in part because he had this brittle bone disease, so he didn’t travel very much. He was really known more as a teacher — Herbie Hancock was a prized student of his. He was from Chicago, he was also blind. He was on the road with Dinah Washington and got fired while the band was in New York — and lived the rest of his life there.”
“I’m going to miss the piano series greatly, because I loved the specific programmatic focus,” said Siegel, adding that there are always more pianists he wants to bring to town, naming Marc Copland as just one example.
But Siegel will be plenty busy as a member of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, an all-volunteer organization of music fans working together to produce 10 area concerts every year.
And there’s always the possibility the World of Piano series may be revived in the future.
“I’m hopeful the Center for the Arts will, at some point, be able to have a new space,” he said. “I’m sure they’re going to hold onto the piano and put it in storage.”
Siegel admits “It’s not a well-maintained 8-foot Steinway” — it’s a character-filled Mason & Hamlin from the early-1900s — but the fingers of many an artist have tickled those ivories.
For now, Dave Burrell will be the last to sit and play before they close the top, throw on the cover and slowly roll it away, waiting for the next chapter.