Thousands of jazz fans, maybe hundreds of thousands, including me, owe gratitude to Dave Brubeck. From the early 1950s well through the 1970s, Brubeck was an essential jazz popularizer, an artist who wrote uniquely catchy themes that stuck in the head of folks who had never heard Charlie Parker or who had no particular interest in modal experimentation. But “Blue Rondo a la Turk”? That was cool. Everybody has heard “Take Five”, and everybody digs it.
To this day, I don’t entirely understand why Brubeck so transfixes jazz neophytes. As critics have never tired of pointing out, Brubeck is a remarkably unswinging soloist. His classic quartet, featuring Paul Desmond’s gin-dry alto saxophone, played with marvelous balance, to be sure, and Brubeck’s songs (“It’s a Raggy Waltz”, “In Your Own Sweet Way”, “The Duke”) were often exceptional. But there was something more, some magic element that made Brubeck’s music nearly as popular as rock ‘n’ roll on college campuses and other hip haunts. A quarter century of excellent record sales and sold out concert halls is truly impressive even if largely inexplicable.
In the last 25 years, Brubeck fans have, of course, continued to listen to those old records. We’ve also spent some time growing beyond our taste in Brubeck. Though my affection for those particular recordings remains, I now hear the group as clunky and labored. Compared to almost any recording by the likes of, say, Elmo Hope or Wynton Kelly, the Brubeck sides sound like a jalopy coming down a gravel road. Brubeck’s more recent recordings have been colored by other instruments (clarinet, flute, even some orchestras and choirs for his classically-influenced composition) but are still utterly Brubeck-y in that attractive themes are weighed down by a certain stiffness of execution.
Not always, of course. Brubeck has a gentle, impressionistic way with a ballad. Tracing the pianist’s style is not complicated. He is an old-school stride player with a strong dose of classical bombast in his fingers. Brubeck’s sound was already set in stone before the influence of the essential modern jazz pianists could creep in. Brubeck betrays no awareness of Bill Evans and only a smidge of Bud Powell or Monk. Particularly on ballads, the pianist plays as if from another era altogether, which can be both charming and dull.
In the autumn of his career at the age of 86, Dave Brubeck has made a solo piano record of gentle ballads. Indian Summer contains no Brubeck-ian bombast, just meditative ballad playing. It does not force any kind of reassessment of Brubeck’s canon, but it serves as a pleasant counterweight to much of his music, maybe a kind of understated bookend that true Brubeck fans should not resist.
The songs are all slow and played with gauzy luxuriousness. The piano often sounds like a harp, strummed rather than hammered. At other times, it hops or skips with an easygoing stride feeling. But the range of expression is kept narrow. The titles tell you what is on Brubeck’s mind: “I’m Alone”, “So Lonely”, “September Song”, “Memories of You”. There are four originals and plenty of less-than-obvious standards. But even the familiar material, such as “Sweet Lorraine”, is not ripped. Every song seems like it is being encountered for the first time. Every song is treated with kid gloves.
Perhaps the most emblematic performance is “Thank You,” a subtle Brubeck original. The written theme is a minor, rhapsodic melody that sounds closer to a classical piece in many ways. It contains interesting traces of atonality in places and builds up less like a jazz improvisation than like a through-written piece. Brubeck is firmly in command here, but he risks relatively little. “Georgia on My Mind” is more relaxed and bluesy, as you might imagine, but it seems equally rote, a dash of Errol Garner affectation, a slow stride bounce, a limited amount of excitement.
But what is the right way to evaluate a recording like this? How many 86 year-old jazz pianists continue to record prominently? Hank Jones is Brubeck’s obvious contemporary, two-and-a-half years older and also still active. Like Brubeck, Jones has stripped down his playing in the last decade, editing it to its essentials. But as his recent work with Joe Lovano has shown, Jones still can play with fire and collaborative zip when the time comes. Brubeck seems to have long ago backed himself into a corner of his own invention.
In total, Indian Summer is a gentle and reflective collection that neatly summarizes Dave Brubeck’s musical personality. It is without the worst elements of Brubeck’s mid-career playing, the bombast and the just-for-the-sake-of-it polyrhythms and pseudo-classicism, but also without the sense of rumbling excitement. Still, as Brubeck faces the last stage of his musical career, you have to admire his sense of direction and fortitude. A collection that sensitively (if some somewhat boringly) stares absence in the face, Brubeck’s Indian Summer is a disc that true fans will want to listen to carefully.
// Notes from the Road
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