Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Time Well Spent: The Education of Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2010 (Photo by Joe Giblin)

Dave Brubeck was the last of the great ambassadors of jazz. Throughout the 1960s, he and his famous quartet would travel the world playing concerts and spreading the word that jazz was more than just an American music. He knew throughout its history that it was a music that drew on all genres. For Dave Brubeck was also a curious composer, one who was intimately interested in learning and using the native sounds and rhythms of Japan, Turkey, Russia and France, in his own work.

His tenure with the French composer Darius Millaud opened his ears to what was possible by learning orchestration, instead of classical piano technique. Brubeck’s openness and eclecticism is one of the most important reasons why he should be remembered. For his was a continuing journey for knowledge. His death last week, at age 91, was the end of that long journey, and in some ways it was the end of a jazz renaissance.

In 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet released one of the most important albums in jazz: Time Out (Columbia). It came out in the same year as Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, Ah Um by Charles Mingus and Tomorrow is the Question! by Ornette Coleman. American music has never been the same since for these four records moved jazz into the next level of artistic merit, what I would define as the four gospels of modern music. Time Out was a risky experiment. It was an album that Brubeck was inspired to record based on his studies of different time signatures, not usually heard in American jazz. Up to that point, the standard jazz measure was 4/4 or four beats to the bar played at various tempos. Save for the occasional 6/8 or waltz time, most jazz composers were happy with that rhythm, seeking to explore harmony and new opportunities for improvisation.

Dave Brubeck Quartet
Alas, that wasn't enough for Brubeck for he was an explorer looking to combine the best of Be-Bop with European or Asian time signatures. Plus, he had a crackerjack band willing to play whatever he wrote. "Take Five," whose unforgettable melody was composed by Paul Desmond, is the most familiar. It's a 5/4 groove that swings with an extraordinary drum solo. It was even a hit single; the last of the pure jazz hits that defined American music in my view, only to be supplanted by Chubby Checker's "The Twist" in 1961. The Dave Brubeck Quartet toured the world with the song in their pocket, but it wasn't enough for the leader. He was absorbing the local culture and musical roots of every country the quartet traveled. No wonder that beautiful, broad smile graced most of his albums!

In 2011, I had the chance to hear his band play at Koerner Hall in Toronto. The place was packed. Dave invited his son, Matthew to play cello on a couple of tunes. Matthew Brubeck is part of the esteemed Jazz Department at York University. Even at this particular show, his father was still working the music; doing his best to find new sounds out of his familiar hits, including “Take Five.” It was treat to hear a man not interested in phoning in a performance, or resting on his success, but working the music as if he was playing it for the last time.

Most of Brubeck’s recordings are still in print. Last year Sony released a huge box set of his Columbia recordings, but Brubeck cut some decent sides for Concord and Telarc in recent years. Here are a few recommendations for your library, in addition to Time Out.

Jazz At Oberlin (Fantasy Records)
Time Further Out (Columbia)
Jazz Impressions of New York (Columbia)
Jazz Impressions of Japan (Columbia)
The Great Concerts (Columbia)
Reflections (Concord)
Indian Summer (Telarc)

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, to be broadcast on CBC Radio's Inside the Music on December 30 called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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