Looking Back at Brubeck

[20 August 2008]

By Will Layman

Dave Brubeck used to be one of the very best-known jazz musicians, a star on college campuses in the ‘50s and ‘60s and a jazz popularizer of the first order well through the ‘70s. The tune “Take Five” (written by his alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and played by his “classic quartet”) still shows up in movies, on TV commercials, and just about anywhere else that real jazz seeks a home among non-aficionados. His double-platter Greatest Hits collection on Columbia Records was one of the first three jazz albums I owned. I wore it out and then some. It gave me as much joy as music can bring a teenager—for reasons I’m still not sure I can explain or understand.

I’ve written a couple of times recently about the venerable jazz pianist. A year ago, he released a quiet album of solo piano music that I found lovely if kind of dull. And two years ago I found myself performing Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” with students and discovered some of its knotty joy.

But Dave Brubeck deserves better from me.

I want to think through Brubeck some more. He is both too easy to love and too easy to dismiss. He was incredibly popular, yet neither simplistic nor crass—all acoustic, never clichéd, frequently daring. Yet—and this is the rub—critics have never much liked his music. Jazz critics almost reflexively are distrustful of popularity. They find Brubeck’s piano unswinging, and the band is given little credit for innovation. The music was a unique amalgam of classical construction and jazz technique that few bands in jazz have followed. And so jazz critics have generally dismissed Brubeck and his 60-year career. It has become a footnote.

What if you listen to him—to his long career—with fresh ears?

Brubeck Live at Monterey
I recently received a review copy of a new collection from Monterey Jazz Festival Records, a label that is releasing an astonishing array of live recordings made at the festival between 1958 and last year. The most striking release is from Dave Brubeck: 50 Years of Dave Brubeck, Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 1958-2007. And it’s true: the classic Brubeck Quartet played at the very first festival and the contemporary Brubeck Quartet played at last year’s version for a total of 14 performances over 50 years.

(The schedule for 2008 is out and, despite a stunning line-up including jazz stars like Cassandra Wilson, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock, and more forward artists like Matt Wilson, Bill Frisell, and Myra Melford, Brubeck is not on the schedule. One hundred and ten miles south of San Francisco, Monterey is an ideal spot for an outdoor jazz festival, the longest-running in the world.)

Listening to these ten tracks is a concise history of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Brubeck, over the years, has fronted octets, played solo, and composed for choirs and orchestras, but his primary voice has always been the quartet: a piano trio plus a woodwind player. The collection allows only one conclusion: the music is consistently superb. Indeed, it defies most stereotypes of the Brubeck group and of the pianist’s own playing. It swings, it is both lyrical and lean, and it creates an irresistible fire-and-ice contrast between several zesty, bluesy horn players and the pianist’s reckless formalism.

Cover art for the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out (1959)

Cover art for the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s
Time Out (1959)

The Classic Quartet. Here, the material begins with Brubeck’s most well-known group: Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums. The first track, “Two Part Contention”, from 1958, is a slice of jazz/classical cleverness, with Desmond and Wright playing written counterpoint, followed by improvised counterpoint between Brubeck and Desmond. It sounds effortless, yet who else has really tried it? When Brubeck stops playing a line and begins ‘comping for Desmond, you almost don’t notice that the tune has become “straight” jazz. Brubeck plays a showy, stride-y solo over a half-time groove, but even this part of Brubeck is more extraordinary than I had remembered, as the solo includes so much more than the polyrhythmic block chords that Brubeck-haters find so unswinging. In one long passage, the pianist experiments with avant-garde harmony, all while apparently not “losing” a festival audience that had almost certainly never heard the likes of Cecil Taylor. When Desmond reenters, Morello doubles the time—and the heat—using just his brushes. Critics, here’s the truth: it swings like mad, whether you want to admit it or not. And this is the classical piece.

The 1962 festival serves up Brubeck’s version of “Someday My Prince Will Come”, the Disney melody that Miles Davis turned into a jazz standard. The kicker, however, is that Miles stole the idea from Brubeck, and the pianist delivers a version that flows but is also urgent. The band was, by now, famous for experimenting with time signatures beyond 4/4, so this is not only a waltz, but it gains even more thrust from the fact that Wright plays strong on the one while Morello accents different beats in different measures. The 1966 version of “Take Five” is even more aggressive, with Morello now utterly comfortable playing the 3-2 pattern and therefore throwing bombs in every measure as if he were Max Roach. As a result, the whole group plays wilder than we’re used to hearing them. Desmond—still dry like a martini in tone—seems free-wheeling and in some moments almost “free” like the precursor to Anthony Braxton that he truly was.

These appearances at Monterey suggest that the “classic quartet” was better than the critics like to recall. It defied the clichés written about it, and turns out to be a jazz group that actually deserved its fame.

The Mulligan Quartet. After Brubeck’s famous group split, it took daring to create a new quartet around a musician—baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan—who was as famous as Brubeck and more critically acclaimed. Mulligan collaborated with Davis on his famous Birth of the Cool nonet, and then he led a ground-breaking piano-less quartet. The result of this pairing is represented by a 1971 date at Monterey. The contrast is plain—Brubeck is no longer the “heavy” of the group, which frees him to discover more delicacy in this playing. At the same time, what made Mulligan possibly the greatest baritone player in jazz was his ability to express tenderness as well as brawn.

“Sermon on the Mount” is a lovely feature for Mulligan, showing this range. It is a largely free performance over a single vamp, allowing Mulligan to develop motifs in the style of Sonny Rollins. The written melody does not enter until the very end, with minimal accompaniment from Brubeck. Additionally, we get a boppish Mulligan tune, “Jumping Bean”, that lets the new rhythm section (Alan Dawson’s drums and Jack Six on bass) work out in straight and Latin time. Mulligan swings effortlessly, and Brubeck’s solo suggests why critics are so quick to misunderstand him. Despite being a jazz pianist in the post-bop era, his assimilation of the Bud Powell vocabulary is only a small part of what he’s about. Though his “Bean” solo largely features a single note line in the right hand à la Powell, its greater influences are clearly the piano styles of Duke Ellington and Errol Garner. Like Ellington, Brubeck thinks like an architect, building structures in his solos rather than spinning a line like a trumpeter. His left hand accompanies with a set sense of form rather than improvised syncopation, and he is quick to move to two-hand unisons or locked-hand excitement, particularly as the solo climaxes. Brubeck, in short, is not much of a pure bopper, and so his music in the ‘50s and ‘60s always sounded slightly out-of-step or even unhip. Non-critics—listeners who knew too little to be narrow-minded—never cared.

The Mulligan/Brubeck Quartet was balanced and beyond cliché. Top-notch.

Brubeck Quartets Since the ‘80s. In the last quarter century, Brubeck has become a venerable sideshow in jazz, almost a man ignored. Though he still drew concert crowds, you’d be hard-pressed to find him at all “relevant” in the music. The Monterey music of that era makes it hard to understand, though.

Tying these quartet together (groups recorded in ‘85, ‘88, ‘02, ‘06, and ‘07) are flutist and alto player Bobby Militello and drummer Randy Jones. “Tritonis” is another workout in 5/4, but this time it’s a free-wheeling blues with a modern backbeat groove. Chris Brubeck plays with Jaco-like funkiness on electric bass, and Militello plays a long flute solo that goes from pretty to ecstatic, including hummed accompaniment. When it’s Brubeck’s turn, he does not try to rock out, but he manages to do what we now have a right to expect—to go backwards to blues roots more than wowing us with speed or flash. He plays various counter-rhythms against the 5/4, of course, but the way to hear it is as a kind of stride-ish polyrhythm rather than some experiment. The guy is just having fun.

cover art

Dave Brubeck

50 Years of Dave Brubeck: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 1958-2007

(Monterey Jazz Festival; US: 5 Aug 2008; UK: Available as import)

This group, as it turns out, excels at the old tunes. In fact, in an era dominated by Wynton Marsalis and his archival Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Brubeck seems right on the cultural button. “I Got Rhythm”, from 2002, jumps like mad, with Militello playing urgent and raspy alto and the leader sounding as fine as ever, his accompanying chords slyly replaying the melody in one spot. The guest on this one is bassist Christian McBride, who drops “Ornithology” into his solo nicely. Then Brubeck weaves “I’m in the Money” into his, striding with glee.

The 2006 and 2007 sets from the festival sub in Michael Moore on bass, but the focus is the same—fluid swing on tunes old enough that few jazz fans will know them. “Sleep” is anything but, with Militello as dashing as any young lion and sounding every bit as urgent as Phil Woods. Brubeck gets his stride on again, then lets it break down in the end. “Margie” is mid-tempo but actually fairly rocking, almost like a Fats Waller tune on the head, going four-to-the-floor for Militello and his bluesy double-times. Brubeck’s solo is one of the best I’ve heard—using his block chord schtick some but with slick restraint. Again, the pianist sounds like a man who wants to play in the moment but continually reminds us of the music’s origins.

And here is the kicker: if you place “Margie” up against “Two Part Contention” from 1958, you hear a band that is, if anything, looser and more swinging than the famous unit. Indeed, at each stage of the artist’s career, he seems to be developing into someone more comfortable with himself and what he likes. The formal inventions of the Desmond group stand out in some ways, but the quartet from a year ago is that much more fun.

Brubeck v. Brubeck on “Forty Days”
To further test my conclusion that Dave Brubeck is not only a terrific jazz pianist but also someone who has been interesting for a very long time (and for longer than almost anyone gives him credit for), I decided to choose one favorite Brubeck tune and listen to versions of it that span the years.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

In 1967, the Classic Quartet released its last album on Columbia, Time In. The stand-out tune was a beautiful melody (again in 5/4) over a descending set of harmonies called “Forty Days”. This original version begins with a spare piano introduction that could almost be something from Keith Jarrett. Morello enters on ride cymbal only with a pulsing Wright beating under Brubeck’s melody statement. The first solo, then, goes to Desmond, whose dry lyricism seems perfect for the tune. Though the intensity of the performance increases throughout, both this solo and Brubeck’s are so logical and lyrical that you can hum them note-for-note after hearing them only a few times.

The tune next arises in 1974 on the second of two albums made by Brubeck with his sons Darius (Rhodes), Danny (drums), and Chris (bass). Here, the band opens the tune with a mystical, shimmering soundscape plainly influenced by the more interesting fusion of that era. It’s not cheap or gimmicky, though—it’s just free and delicate, with the original piano introduction emerging faintly from behind electric washes of reverb. When the pulse kicks in, the tune is not only recognizable, but it seems to have a greater elasticity than in the original. Dad solos first, and the more aggressive drumming of Danny pushes it all nicely. When Darius takes over on Rhodes, the playing gets even bigger. But what knocks you out is how easy the leader finds it to integrate these new techniques into his work.

Fourteen years later, Brubeck has at “Forty Days” again, this time featuring another son, Matthew, on cello. The tune is the same, but the feel is again largely shifted. The intro now goes to the cello, bowed, with the main theme skipped in favor of a bass solo for Chris Brubeck over minimal drumming. Cello follows, pizzicato and arco, giving way to Dad as the drums amp up to a bossa nova feel. This is Brubeck’s most adventurous “Forty Days” solo—it strays far from the written harmonies yet does so lyrically. You feel that you would follow him anywhere, so beautifully does he play.

Finally, there is a live version from the quartet with Militello from recent years. Now that I’ve paid attention to Brubeck over time, I am not surprised to say that this is the most dynamic and different of all the versions. Though there is a return to the classic introduction, Militello’s solo is by far the fieriest ever on this song, with the band initially suspending the pulse as he stokes the fire. Soon enough it catches.

And So, After 87 Years…
Brubeck was born in 1920 in California, and he’s been playing glorious American music on the piano for most of that life. He served under Patton in World War Two, making him a “Greatest Generation” guy, but he is happily and plainly beyond category. His heroes are Armstrong and Ellington, but he has proven himself more than happy to mix it up with electric instruments. He was on the cover of Time as a jazz musician—the most popular jazz musician of that time—and he has also been strangely forgotten.

But the legacy of his career is stronger than the dismissal of critics who found him unhip or quirky over time. Fifty years at the Monterey Festival alone is amazing, but the continual invention and verve of those performances is undeniable. Though Brubeck recently announced that international touring was no longer an option at his age, his quartet is still active. With some luck, you can still hear him perform “Forty Days”, and the likelihood is that it will get you right in the heart.

I remember hearing Brubeck for the first time in the ‘70s on a greatest hits double-disc, and I remember feeling, “How could anyone not like this music?” A thousand listens later, somewhere down the line, I left Brubeck behind.

It’s nice to be enjoying him again. How could I not?

Dave Brubeck Quartet - Take Five (1966)

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/looking-back-at-brubeck/