When you usually think of seeing jazz great Dave Brubeck and his accompanying trio of musicians, it’s often either at an outdoor venue, jazz festival or some performing arts center. The idea of Brubeck performing as you order your third Starbucks Mocca-Latte-Frappo-Cappo-Whappo-Grande-Choco-Viante-Espresso is absurd. However, that didn’t stop him from playing over two nights at Starbucks coffeehouse on Park Avenue in Manhattan last July. “The experience ... was something unique and a challenge for musicians and sound engineers alike,” Brubeck says in the press kit. However, the 10 songs on the disc sound as pure as anything the pianist has done recently.
Brubeck gets things going with a melodic ragtime solo that opens the standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street”. The song has a melancholic flow to it as Bobby Militello is given a lengthy time to show his chops on alto saxophone. There is a great amount of precision to the entire album and it’s quite audible. Brubeck’s piano was located near the sidewalk window, so he kept his primarily kept his eyes closed to avoid the peering eyes and faces pressed from the sidewalk. Brubeck does loosen up and the tempo picks up as it reaches the homestretch. Not bad for someone who turns 82 this year. “Love for Sale”, the Cole Porter tune, is given a typical run-through here which drummer Randy Jones having an opportunity to shine. Bogged down to a snail’s pace courtesy of Michael Moore’s bass playing, the tune sags a bit in its core.
One of the new songs to be showcased is the poignant European jazz of “Elegy”. Dedicated to the late Norwegian jazz journalist Randi Hultin, the song is void of any energy and is as close to a dirge as you can get. The perfect soundtrack to a miserable rainy Sunday morning stroll, the track might be better suited as the album’s coda. “Don’t Forget Me” takes a few minutes to gel, but when it does it’s worth the wait. All four performers are in synch for the nearly eleven minutes, keeping the swing and be-bop quotient on par with Brubeck’s uber-hit “Take Five”. The audience participation is kept to a minimum, but some applause can be heard mid-way through. “Get Ready” somebody or perhaps Brubeck says before “Love Is Just around the Corner”, another very good performance that Militello takes to great heights time and again. But Brubeck has some fun also, picking the pace up to a toe-tapping crowd-pleaser.
Most of the longer songs compose the first half to the album with nothing longer than seven minutes on “side two”. “On a Slow Boat to China” has Brubeck leading his troops into battle but without much in the way of inventiveness. There’s nothing very memorable about the song although the musicianship never wavers. It is the exception to the rule thankfully, as “I Love Vienna” has a laid-back and very soothing structure to it. Inspired on a train trip from Switzerland to Austria, Brubeck captures the essence of what has made him so renowned and yet still so vital to generations of jazz performers. Another highlight comes from the surprising “Crescent City Stomp”, one of the funkier, percussion driven songs that never loses its oomph factor.
The first notes of “Take Five” get the biggest ovation, and for good reason. Still sounding as fresh and as crisp as its 1960 debut. Brubeck and drummer Andy Jones work well off each other, each keeping the off-kilter tempo soaring until going back to a clean musical slate. On the whole, the album isn’t a staple that most Brubeck fans would rush out for except perhaps the diehard ones. However, for the pedestrian or newcomer who only knows “Take Five”, it’s well worth sacrificing the three or four cups of joe.
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// Notes from the Road
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