SOMERVILLE — Pianist Dave Burrell remembers the times in the early 1960s when he’d sit with a coterie of Berklee School of Music students (as the college was then known) in the Boylston Street restaurant beneath the rooming house where they lived. “We used to sit in the front room and watch the Prudential Center being built,” he recalls.
Then they’d go upstairs and work out ways to deconstruct the edifices of mainstream jazz.
They’d jam in ad hoc ensembles mixing future innovators like Burrell with already-emerged stars of the forward-looking jazz scene. Tony Williams was a frequent presence — when not out on the road, pushing the boundaries of post-bop from the drum chair of Miles Davis’s famed “second great quintet” — as was saxophonist Sam Rivers, who served a brief stint in Davis’s group before becoming a key voice in the emerging jazz avant-garde.
Dave Burrell and Garrison Fewell: Outside Music, Inside Voices duo
“We’d start the session off with something like Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones,’ ” Burrell says, referencing the structurally innovative but easy-on-the-ears standard, “and then by the end of the session we would have the lights off and nothing but the glow of the space heater, and play free.”
Going on to record with the likes of Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, and authoring a string of solo records, Burrell has been playing free ever since. So when he shows up for an unrehearsed meeting of the musical minds on Sunday, playing a duet with guitarist Garrison Fewell for the first time, both players are apt to feel very much at home.
The gig, at Somerville’s Third Life Studio, came at Fewell’s invitation. The guitarist and educator, a fixture at Berklee since he began teaching classes in 1977 a few weeks before he even graduated, is including Burrell in an in-progress book of interviews with 25 leading practitioners of what the author calls “creative improvised music.” There will also be an open conversation led by longtime jazz scribe Ed Hazell.
“He’s someone who can play a standard and he can deconstruct it in his own unique way, and make it sound nonstandard at the same time,” Fewell says of the pianist. “And he can play free.”
For his own part, Fewell took a circuitous path toward the realms of free jazz he now explores. Leading groups with a more straight-ahead style throughout the 1980s, he wasn’t able to make much commercial traction, cutting a few recordings but never able to bring a record label deal to fruition. Instead, much of his time away from Berklee was spent on trips to Europe, where he was an in-demand music instructor, making gigs along the way. (He self-published his first book, the educationally oriented “Jazz Improvisation,” in 1982.)
His debut record, in 1994, was recorded live at Scullers Jazz Club, in days when his sets featured his clean tone and melodic lines. He released a few more records in that vein, but in 2003 — he can pin down the transition pretty much to the date — something important happened. He heard Sun Ra.
“I completely changed,” he says, after immersing himself in the extensive works of that cosmic jazzman who famously claimed to hail from Saturn. “It wasn’t a gradual thing. I made a break from what I was doing and came out of the closet [as a free jazz fan], because I had been listening to free music, loving it, collecting it.”
He brought his enthusiasm into the classroom, presenting an overview of Ra’s career at a time, he says, when that kind of free sound was largely absent from the school.
“Some of my colleagues thought I was crazy,” Fewell recalls, “but the [presentation] was packed. There were so many people who you just wouldn’t know were into Sun Ra — because on the outside we’re teaching something else, but on the inside, what our ears are telling us is another thing.”
Fewell has since made a series of recordings that pursue his own spin on creative improvised music, most recently with the riotous ensemble he dubs the Variable Density Sound Orchestra.
So when he and Burrell meet onstage for the first time, where will they find common ground? Burrell says they’ll play at least one or two of his recent compositions — which are part of a five-year commission as composer-in-residence at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia — rather than asking the audience to follow along for a completely improvised journey.
“I notice that each country has its own timeline [of embracing trends in jazz]. A Berliner might come out and listen to someone play free all night long and not be bored,” Burrell says. “The Berlin model is not the New England model by any means.”
Fewell says he’s quite comfortable making someone’s musical acquaintance on the bandstand, in front of an audience. It’s not necessarily experience together or musical charts that make the difference, he says, but shared intent.
“Improvisation is confronting the unknown and being comfortable with that,” Fewell says. “There may be moments of chaos, but at a certain moment those sound molecules meet together and the vibrations become sympathetic. And they form something that you can concretely hear as music. That’s what we’re looking for. We’re trying to do that.”
It’s been 50 years since Burrell spent his evenings teasing out future directions of jazz in a dark room above Boylston Street. But for this gig at a multipurpose studio space in Union Square, the destination is likely to be the same: the unknown.