With Dave Brubeck, it’s all about the timing, and not just the strange tempos he played with in his music. 1967 was the year that saw us lose John Coltrane, and though Miles Davis was at the height of his powers with his second great quintet, their run would end shortly after ‘67 and Davis would wander away from jazz into fusion. It was a time when jazz as we knew it was in flux, and this included Brubeck. At the end of the year, on December 26, Brubeck played his final show with his own classic quartet, and it’s captured here on Their Last Time Out.
The Pittsburgh crowd who lucky enough to witness this final show heard a hell of a performance. Brubeck was poised to move into more orchestral work after this, he had simply done all he could with the quartet—including recording 1957’s classic Time Out, an album as intricate as it is purely smooth—and it was time to move on. So the band, together since the start of the ‘50s, doesn’t feel worn out at all here, but instead like a strong force exerting itself one last time.
What’s stunning about the quartet and their performance here, is that they have a classic swing, even as their time signatures are all over the map. As always, the main tension that drives these songs is the counterplay of Paul Desmond’s lyrical alto sax and Brubeck’s dynamic, off-kilter piano. They trade solos right off the bat on “St. Louis Blues”, as if introducing themselves to the crowd, and it sounds like some intimate musical conversation. Desmond is muted yet fiery, his sax never bleats but always delivers a quiet intensity, while Brubeck goes from shimmering rundowns to clattering chords. Brubeck, more than perhaps any piano player this side of Thelonious Monk, reminds us it’s a percussion instrument.
The set itself has a keen sense of pace, and knows when to pull the rug out from under the audience and us. After a sharp opening, the band settles into the blue light of “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)”, a lilting number that stretches itself into a languid 10 minutes. That is, it would, if Brubeck didn’t crack it wide open with a strange run of banging riffs in the middle, riffs that veer wildly away from the song’s time structure only to join it again in the end. This is in stark contrast to the under-a-streetlight calm of Desmond’s playing to open the tune.
Even when they slip into balladry, here and on the excellent “La Paloma Azul” among other places, things never get easy or dull. These songs smolder all the way through the set, and they offer lively, unique turns on great jazz tunes like “Someday My Prince Will Come” and Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”. The second disc—the whole set runs nearly 90 minutes—is just as strong as the first. It offers everything from the sweet clack and clatter of “Swanee River” to the hushed ache of “I’m in a Dancing Mood”, which shows us Desmond at his most wonderfully restrained. The set ends fittingly with “Take Five”. Penned by Desmond, it’s the band’s most famous song, and one of the finest in jazz music, period.
This last crack at “Take Five” is brilliantly energetic. The crowd comes alive and you can feel the band getting into it, shaking off the fatigue of the show to knock this out one last time. In particular, you hear Joe Morello’s drums come to life, and in the end you see they were missing from this mix a bit. Their Last Time Out wasn’t recorded by Columbia at the time; it’s an archival show. The mix is still great, but it is uneven. It leans heavily—and perhaps necessarily—on Desmond and Brubeck, but this undersells Morello and bassist Eugene Wright. Morello gets some great tumbling solos in, announcing his presence, but Wright’s bass—and he is excellent top to bottom—is buried a bit here. As a result, Their Last Time Out unintentionally champions the connection between Desmond and Brubeck over the strength of the entire band.
Not that this affects the power of this set. This is still great, a must-have for Brubeck fans. It is not, however, a definitive live statement. We’ve already got the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s At Carnegie Hall, a 1963 set that stands as one of the finest live jazz recordings ever, and celebrated the band as a whole. In comparison, this set can’t quite match up, but that hardly makes it a failure. Coming from one of the most consistent quartets in jazz, this final show is typically excellent, which is why it still manages to surprise you.