The Dave Brubeck Quartet: London Flat, London Sharp
As technically proficient as ever, Brubeck's latest is too cool and too clean to be anything more than pleasant.
As has been his trademark for over 50 years, Dave Brubeck's latest release is chock-full of the intelligent and witty jazz we've come to expect. There are no new "Take Five"s or "Blue Rondo a la Turk"s on the album, but there are ten tracks full of good-natured cool jazz. Not many musicians who have been plying their trade for as long as Brubeck are going to radically alter their sound, and this album is no exception. But the master craftsmanship of the music, the pure know-how, allows for a level of comfort and sophistication that few younger or less-capable musicians could hope to match.
That same sense of sophistication is the album's blessing and its curse. Every element of the music -- the counterpoint, the cross-rhythms, the balance of it all -- is so skillfully executed that, to my ears at least, it lacks the intensity and questing spirit that informs the best jazz. Take for example the track entitled "The Time of Our Madness". A title like that begs its music for some edge or sense of abandon, and all we get is some sub-sub-sub Coltrane blowing. Rather than actually giving in to madness, the song plays as a master class in how to musically compose a song hinting at madness. But abandon has never been Brubeck's stock in trade, and we should all be so lucky to have such a keen and agile mind at 85 years of age. That doesn't mean we have to buy his albums though.
Brubeck seems to approach his music as if piecing together a liquid puzzle. The pieces always fit together, but the larger image is prone to shifting. Rest assured, though, that there is always a method to his calculations. He works diligently and methodically: first one piece, then another, never daring to throw the pieces up in the air in order to see how the might land. While his kind of musical architecture is easy to admire, I find it hard to love.
On a song like "Steps to Peace", written by the composer Derrill Bodley in honor of his daughter who died on Flight 93 [United Flight 93 crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside on September 11th, 2001 - Ed.], the quartet's performance folds together with the fragile beauty of an origami swan. It is a heart-rending performance of serene beauty, and in my mind the best music on the album. The musical setting allows Brubeck's contemplative and empathetic gifts to shine brightly. But there are only one or two performances on the album -- "Yes, We All Have Our Cross to Bear" being another one -- where Brubeck's style is able to generate an emotional as well as intellectual response.
For my taste, too much of the recording seems like jazz composed by mild-mannered mathematics majors. Yes, this music is more than capable of bringing a smile to your face, and most of it would be a perfect match for an elegant dinner party on the 47th floor of a Mies Van Der Rohe skyscraper, but outside of my high-society fantasy, laying on my back with headphones on, my wish that the music might provoke a dream of its own design goes unmet.