[9 March 2004]
“I hear you’re mad about Brubeck
I like your eyes I like him too
He’s an artist, a pioneer
We’ve got to have some music on the new frontier”
—Donald Fagen, “New Frontier”
Dave Brubeck was the white, collegiate face of jazz back in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Fronted by Brubeck at the piano, his quartet featured a rhythm section of bassist Gene Wright and drummer Joe Morello and the sweet, melodic alto sax work of Paul Desmond, and Brubeck had the first jazz instrumental recording to sell a million copies plus landing himself on the cover of Time magazine. The music he played was hip, swinging, and decidedly un-square, yet his infusion of modern European harmonic sensibilities gave his group a sophistication that conjures images of dark, wood-paneled clubrooms swirling with cigarette smoke and packed with beautiful, blonde Euro-models and Madison Avenue playboys.
Of course, Brubeck and his group also became known for working in a variety of oddball time signatures, providing rhythmic backdrops that were decidedly un-European. Most time signatures outside the “normal” 4/4, 2/4, and 6/8 can be broken down into smaller pieces, which musicians generally do when learning to play them. For example, 7/4 can be counted as ‘1234/123’ or as ‘12/12/123’ or myriad other breakdowns. This creates a more fluid approach to rhythm (despite what one might expect) that somewhat mimics musical cultures (African and Indian come to mind) where time is not as strict as it is in Western music. The musical element of time cannot be separated from the cultural element, and it can therefore be correctly assumed that Western cultures tend to view time as linear and not free-flowing (Einstein and Stephen Hawking notwithstanding) while many other cultures view time as a river that flows in more than one direction and at more than one speed. In this respect, Brubeck can be regarded as having explored the rhythmic roots of jazz music, which sits in sharp contrast to his introduction of European harmonic elements. Because of his insertion of the harmonic ideas of modern European composers such as Darius Milhaud (with whom he studied) into his music, Brubeck is frequently regarded as a white man who tried to disguise jazz music’s true Afro-American background and “dress it up” in the haberdashery of European (read: white) classical music.
That charge is unadulterated poppycock, as a quick survey of the musical landscape at the time demonstrates. The Modern Jazz Quartet, for example, mined much of the same area as Brubeck, creating music that was rooted deeply in European concepts of musical composition and harmony. The MJQ presented their music in concert halls, not smoky bars, and they wore suits or tuxedos when performing live. They didn’t mess with unusual time signatures as much, but they sought to combine improvisation with a classically oriented compositional structure in a way that undermined neither element.
For All Time packages together the five albums the Brubeck Quartet recorded for Columbia Records between 1959 and 1965, and it is an essential purchase for serious jazz fans. All of the elements that Brubeck and company explore here provide fodder for the next 30 years of jazz music’s development. One can find elements of Brubeck’s interest in folk music (both American and European) in the influence of Eastern European music on Dave Douglas today, for example. Others, such as bandleader Don Ellis, would continue to explore the employment of unusual time signatures. Some of the influence this group has had on more recent performers has been obscured by the fact that many of these albums were unavailable on CD, or only Available as imports, until the release of this set.
Time Out has never been out of print since its original release in 1959. Produced by Teo Macero, who was also very interested in finding ways to combine improvisation with more structured composition, produced the album for Columbia. It features what have become classic numbers in the jazz canon, “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and “Take Five”, which was actually composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond. “Three to Get Ready” features two bars of 3/4 followed by two bars of 4/4 time and also became a staple of the Brubeck repertoire, as did “Kathy’s Waltz”. But there are less well-known treasures as well. “Strange Meadowlark”, the album’s second track, is a particularly beautiful Brubeck composition that begins with a long solo piano intro, building in density until the rhythm section enters with swinging gusto and Paul Desmond’s lighter than air alto sax delivers the exquisitely lyrical melody.
Desmond was an essential component in the Brubeck quartet. He once stated that he was hoping to achieve a sound like a dry martini. If by that he meant that he was attempting to deliver the essence of what he was playing, without anything extraneous (such as vibrato or unnecessary notes), then he succeeds admirably. But what most strikes the listener to these sides is the intense lyricism of his playing, which makes him the perfect interpreter the lyrical melodies of Brubeck the composer and the perfect counterpoint to the dense harmonies and percussive attack of Brubeck the pianist. His alto sound has been criticized by some as lacking gusto and being a bit too well mannered, but it is a unique voice in the jazz universe and no one else has really ever duplicated it. And though he wasn’t a prolific composer himself, Desmond was certainly a memorable one-in fact, it was he who composed the group’s biggest hit, and one of the memorable jazz instrumental records of all time, “Take Five”.
Oddly enough, another element that is often overlooked in determining the Brubeck quartet’s place in jazz history is Brubeck himself as a pianist. Many consider him to be primarily a composer and bandleader, not stopping to consider his extremely individualistic piano style. But Brubeck is a consummate pianist who has clearly examined and dissected all of the jazz styles that came before he arrived on the scene. For example, listen to his take on stride/ragtime on “Countdown”, the opening track from the album Countdown: Time In Outer Space, on which he shows the influence of pianists such as Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. Or his modern reinterpretation of the boogie-woogie style on “Bru’s Boogie Woogie” from the Time Further Out album. There are plenty of other examples as well, demonstrating that, just as in the case of Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus, sometimes a musician’s accomplishments as a composer and overall personality can overshadow their mastery of their chosen instrument. Listening to these five discs, it becomes apparent that Brubeck forged a style of piano playing that was, in its own way, every bit as individual and new as that of Thelonious Monk or Bill Evans.
Taken all together, the five discs that comprise For All Time go a long way toward reminding listeners just what made the Dave Brubeck Quartet so popular in its day and why this music is important and stands up well today. There have been other Brubeck box sets (notably the 4 disc set Time Signatures) that go beyond the years covered by For All Time, including music from Brubeck’s career beyond the quartet, but this is the better buy, including as it does everything from the pianist’s most productive years and featuring the best and most sympathetic group of musicians he would ever play with.