It shouldn’t be too nit-picky to say that a collection of music from an artist like Dave Brubeck cannot properly be called “definitive” if it does not contain a single of the recordings for which the artist is most well — and properly — known.
So The Definitive Dave Brubeck is . . . not. Brubeck became a key jazz musician and jazz popularizer in the 1950s and 1960s because of the series of albums he made for Columbia Records. With labelmates such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, Brubeck was the least likely (and, in some respects, most popular) of the jazz players who made the music cool and hip in the immediate pre-rock era. With tunes like “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo ala Turk”, Brubeck made his way onto the cover of Time and taught a heap of folks to dig jazz. Those (definitive) recordings are not here.
Rather, this double-disc set presents the bookends of Brubeck’s career: 17 tracks that cover the pianist’s very first recording (1942) through his last recordings on Fantasy records, his partnership with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond intact (1953); and then nine tracks from the years 1982-2004 after his Columbia tenure had ended and Desmond had passed. The Definitive Dave Brubeck, then, is more of a historical document. Listening to Disc One, you can hear Brubeck’s idiosyncratic style coming together, while Disc Two presents a mature artist whose defining years have passed, an artist with a time and freedom to play around the edges.
Early Brubeck is a curious thing. The solo from Brubeck’s college years, a lo-fi “I Found a New Baby”, introduces us to a muscular, busy young pianist who plays modern stride piano like an Art Tatum who has eaten too many Wheaties. Brubeck, the graduate student under Darius Milhaud at Mills College, is shown off with a strange octet performance of “The Way You Look Tonight”. The head arrangement and horn lines that accompany the piano solo reharmonize the show tune in wild, sour ways. It’s a show-offy brand of West Coast Cool, I suppose—a little classical, a little bop harmony, a whole lot of discomfort.
We get a heavy dollop of Brubeck’s first successful group, his trio from 1949-1951. The drummer — and sometime bongo player or vibraharpist — is Cal Tjader, and he has a outsized influence of the sound of the band. On drums, Tjader is splashy and heavy, playing with a whole lot of Buddy Rich or Louis Belson in his soul. When he moves to bongos (“That Ol’ Black Magic”, “Perfidia”) or vibes (“Sweet Georgia Brown”, “How High the Moon”), this is obviously a very different band. The hand percussion stuff seems like a novelty now, the sound of a band picking up on a trend toward Latin jazz that doesn’t suit Brubeck at all. The tunes with vibes present a much more interesting development, with Brubeck getting a real improvising foil with whom to work out his more individual ideas for the first time. The unison written line of variation on “Sweet Georgia Brown” is smart and cool, and the classical counterpoint ending of “How High the Moon” presages this technique as Brubeck would soon (and for decades) practice it with his great partner, Paul Desmond.
While Desmond met Brubeck in school and appeared in the octet, the two men didn’t fully partner until 1952. A quartet with both players appears here with a very swinging “Look For the Silver Lining”. From the start, the sound of the classic quartet seems to be in place. Desmond is lyrical and light in tone, but his rhythmic drive gives his playing mature bite. Brubeck seems immediately liberated by this foil, and his playing is transformed from a passable version of bop to something more knotty and melodic. Here, for the first time, we hear Brubeck playing with both the crystal-fine melodic invention that was his best quality and the bombastic block chord style that was so exciting to hear but that also overwhelmed the flowing swing of his group. Desmond is right there, quoting other tunes with wit then engaging Brubeck in perfect but spontaneous counterpoint. A partnership is born.
This band’s approach to standards was critical. The great Brubeck originals aren’t much in the quartet’s repertoire yet, so we get a new “How High the Moon” from the band’s famous Jazz Goes to College (live at Oberlin College, Ohio) that shifts from mid-tempo piano trio to a quick charge for Desmond’s great solo. Brubeck is generous in his comping, setting up his partner to be the star in the first solo, then using his turn to abstract the tune in a crazy climax of jagged, banged chords that must have sounded a little bit like pre-rock rebellion to his 1952 college audience.
It’s not all roses, however. A rewriting of “Over the Rainbow” — not just the harmonies but key notes in the melody, too — seems more like an academic exercise than an emotional experience, and a solo outing on the great standard “My Romance” also suggests that Brubeck wants to play another tune altogether. On both performances, the pianist fails to swing, flattening out the conversational rhythms in the compositions and bringing a series of studied new chords that play out as patterns rather than devices that tell a story. In some ways, this is modern music that might have caught the ear of a player such as Cecil Taylor. But compared to the fun of the full quartet digging into “Lulu’s Back in Town”, it’s mainly of academic interest.
The tracks from 1982 to 2004 are a more random collection. This part of Brubeck’s career included many performances by his regular groups, but it also included classical composition, orchestral work, solo recitals—all sorts of material. What we get here is a fairly narrow mix of a solo track, a duet with Christian McBride, and quartet music featuring either Bill Smith’s clarinet or Bobby Militello on alto. The story line of this later music is not so clear.
Though Brubeck is still likely to work himself up to a heavy-fisted rhythmic clatter in his later years (check out playing on “Black and Blue”), more of the work here has a gentle tone. Brubeck’s solo introduction to “St. Louis Blues” (from the live in Moscow LP of 1987) is beautifully restrained, and his own “Koto Song” from 1982 is a caressing piece of impressionism with Bill Smith’s clarinet being used as an undulating low line that ultimately includes a tasteful electronic echoplex effect.
The only “Take Five” we get on this collection does not feature its composer, Desmond, but the Moscow version, which starts out in standard form then takes a refreshing turn. Brubeck’s solo, rather than the usual Build to Thunderous Block Chords, lays in a shimmering variant on a melody from Shosakovich’s Fifth Symphony — the classical/hybrid Brubeck at his best.
The solo piece chosen is an exceedingly ruminative “Variations on ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime’”. The duet “Here Comes McBride” is cheeky fun with a jaunty blues feel, giving us a taste of how the older Brubeck continued to exploit his roots in playing a form of stride piano.
The later quartet comes off well in three selections of original Brubeck melodies. “Waltzing” and “Day After Day” were new compositions from 1997 and 2000, showing that the old master still had the ability to write flowing melodies in different time signatures that can bring anyone’s ears out to play. Militello is a more traditional post-bop saxophonist than Desmond and has the wisdom to just be himself, standing up to Brubeck’s thudding style with choice authority. In this band, the leader solos more like a “regular” jazz pianist while still flashing his idiosyncratic approach in moderation.
While The Definitive Dave Brubeck is a far cry from a summary of the man’s best work, it is an excellent value for Brubeck fans, and it would help those who only know his classic Columbia tracks to see more of the picture.
In December of last year, Dave Brubeck celebrated his 90th birthday, and this seems as a good a time as any to note that, whatever the reservations about Brubeck, his best music is brilliant, and the sum-total of his 70-year career is a thing of awe and beauty. The last track here, a 2004 version of his superb composition “Forty Days”, is moving and dramatically played — a riveting and beautiful example of modern jazz from a man who was then 84 years-old. That recording is definitive, at least as proof that Dave Brubeck has remained a wonderful musician for a half-century since Americans saw him on that Time cover.