Looking Back at Brubeck

by Will Layman

20 August 2008


Brubeck Quartets Since the ‘80s. In the last quarter century, Brubeck has become a venerable sideshow in jazz, almost a man ignored. Though he still drew concert crowds, you’d be hard-pressed to find him at all “relevant” in the music. The Monterey music of that era makes it hard to understand, though.

Tying these quartet together (groups recorded in ‘85, ‘88, ‘02, ‘06, and ‘07) are flutist and alto player Bobby Militello and drummer Randy Jones. “Tritonis” is another workout in 5/4, but this time it’s a free-wheeling blues with a modern backbeat groove. Chris Brubeck plays with Jaco-like funkiness on electric bass, and Militello plays a long flute solo that goes from pretty to ecstatic, including hummed accompaniment. When it’s Brubeck’s turn, he does not try to rock out, but he manages to do what we now have a right to expect—to go backwards to blues roots more than wowing us with speed or flash. He plays various counter-rhythms against the 5/4, of course, but the way to hear it is as a kind of stride-ish polyrhythm rather than some experiment. The guy is just having fun.

cover art

Dave Brubeck

50 Years of Dave Brubeck: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 1958-2007

(Monterey Jazz Festival)
US: 5 Aug 2008
UK: Available as import

This group, as it turns out, excels at the old tunes. In fact, in an era dominated by Wynton Marsalis and his archival Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Brubeck seems right on the cultural button. “I Got Rhythm”, from 2002, jumps like mad, with Militello playing urgent and raspy alto and the leader sounding as fine as ever, his accompanying chords slyly replaying the melody in one spot. The guest on this one is bassist Christian McBride, who drops “Ornithology” into his solo nicely. Then Brubeck weaves “I’m in the Money” into his, striding with glee.

The 2006 and 2007 sets from the festival sub in Michael Moore on bass, but the focus is the same—fluid swing on tunes old enough that few jazz fans will know them. “Sleep” is anything but, with Militello as dashing as any young lion and sounding every bit as urgent as Phil Woods. Brubeck gets his stride on again, then lets it break down in the end. “Margie” is mid-tempo but actually fairly rocking, almost like a Fats Waller tune on the head, going four-to-the-floor for Militello and his bluesy double-times. Brubeck’s solo is one of the best I’ve heard—using his block chord schtick some but with slick restraint. Again, the pianist sounds like a man who wants to play in the moment but continually reminds us of the music’s origins.

And here is the kicker: if you place “Margie” up against “Two Part Contention” from 1958, you hear a band that is, if anything, looser and more swinging than the famous unit. Indeed, at each stage of the artist’s career, he seems to be developing into someone more comfortable with himself and what he likes. The formal inventions of the Desmond group stand out in some ways, but the quartet from a year ago is that much more fun.

Brubeck v. Brubeck on “Forty Days”
To further test my conclusion that Dave Brubeck is not only a terrific jazz pianist but also someone who has been interesting for a very long time (and for longer than almost anyone gives him credit for), I decided to choose one favorite Brubeck tune and listen to versions of it that span the years.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

In 1967, the Classic Quartet released its last album on Columbia, Time In. The stand-out tune was a beautiful melody (again in 5/4) over a descending set of harmonies called “Forty Days”. This original version begins with a spare piano introduction that could almost be something from Keith Jarrett. Morello enters on ride cymbal only with a pulsing Wright beating under Brubeck’s melody statement. The first solo, then, goes to Desmond, whose dry lyricism seems perfect for the tune. Though the intensity of the performance increases throughout, both this solo and Brubeck’s are so logical and lyrical that you can hum them note-for-note after hearing them only a few times.

The tune next arises in 1974 on the second of two albums made by Brubeck with his sons Darius (Rhodes), Danny (drums), and Chris (bass). Here, the band opens the tune with a mystical, shimmering soundscape plainly influenced by the more interesting fusion of that era. It’s not cheap or gimmicky, though—it’s just free and delicate, with the original piano introduction emerging faintly from behind electric washes of reverb. When the pulse kicks in, the tune is not only recognizable, but it seems to have a greater elasticity than in the original. Dad solos first, and the more aggressive drumming of Danny pushes it all nicely. When Darius takes over on Rhodes, the playing gets even bigger. But what knocks you out is how easy the leader finds it to integrate these new techniques into his work.

Fourteen years later, Brubeck has at “Forty Days” again, this time featuring another son, Matthew, on cello. The tune is the same, but the feel is again largely shifted. The intro now goes to the cello, bowed, with the main theme skipped in favor of a bass solo for Chris Brubeck over minimal drumming. Cello follows, pizzicato and arco, giving way to Dad as the drums amp up to a bossa nova feel. This is Brubeck’s most adventurous “Forty Days” solo—it strays far from the written harmonies yet does so lyrically. You feel that you would follow him anywhere, so beautifully does he play.

Finally, there is a live version from the quartet with Militello from recent years. Now that I’ve paid attention to Brubeck over time, I am not surprised to say that this is the most dynamic and different of all the versions. Though there is a return to the classic introduction, Militello’s solo is by far the fieriest ever on this song, with the band initially suspending the pulse as he stokes the fire. Soon enough it catches.

And So, After 87 Years…
Brubeck was born in 1920 in California, and he’s been playing glorious American music on the piano for most of that life. He served under Patton in World War Two, making him a “Greatest Generation” guy, but he is happily and plainly beyond category. His heroes are Armstrong and Ellington, but he has proven himself more than happy to mix it up with electric instruments. He was on the cover of Time as a jazz musician—the most popular jazz musician of that time—and he has also been strangely forgotten.

But the legacy of his career is stronger than the dismissal of critics who found him unhip or quirky over time. Fifty years at the Monterey Festival alone is amazing, but the continual invention and verve of those performances is undeniable. Though Brubeck recently announced that international touring was no longer an option at his age, his quartet is still active. With some luck, you can still hear him perform “Forty Days”, and the likelihood is that it will get you right in the heart.

I remember hearing Brubeck for the first time in the ‘70s on a greatest hits double-disc, and I remember feeling, “How could anyone not like this music?” A thousand listens later, somewhere down the line, I left Brubeck behind.

It’s nice to be enjoying him again. How could I not?

Dave Brubeck Quartet - Take Five (1966)

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