Looking Back at Brubeck

Dave Brubeck has been incredibly popular, neither simplistic nor crass, yet critics have never much liked his music. What if you listen to him -- to his long career -- with fresh ears?

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)

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.

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