Monday, December 10, 2012

Reflections on Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012

The Classic Dave Brubeck Quartet: Joe Morello, drums, Dave Brubeck, piano, Eugene Wright, bass, Paul Desmond, alto sax.

Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012.
Dave Brubeck was my favorite jazz musician, and I was very sad when he passed away last week at the age of 91. Brubeck lived a long life, full of many successes and triumphs, yet it still makes me sad that he’s gone. Like many people, Dave Brubeck’s music helped introduce me to jazz. I first started getting into jazz when I was about 16 or 17, around 1997-98, and the first jazz albums I remember really liking were Wes Montgomery’s “A Day in the Life” and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out.” From there my love of jazz grew, but my admiration for Dave Brubeck’s music has remained over the years. 

In 2001, I was lucky enough to meet Dave Brubeck twice. It’s pretty cool to meet one of your musical heroes. During college, I spent the fall of 2001 in Washington, D.C., studying at American University as part of the “Washington Semester” program. Part of that program was an internship two days a week. My internship was at Hedrick Smith Productions. Hedrick Smith is a journalist who spent many years at The New York Times, where he won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for breaking the Pentagon Papers story, and the other in 1974 for International Reporting, for his reports from the Soviet Union. Smith wrote the bestselling books “The Russians” and “The Power Game.” After he retired from The New York Times, Smith started producing documentaries for PBS. Most of these dealt with public affairs, but sometimes Smith would be able to sneak in documentaries about jazz, one of his passions. The semester I was at Hedrick Smith Productions, he was finishing a documentary about Dave Brubeck, called “Rediscovering Dave Brubeck.” For me, this was one of the selling points of interning at Hedrick Smith Productions. I thought to myself, “I get to work for Hedrick Smith and he’s making a documentary about Dave Brubeck? Done and done!” The filming of the documentary was completed, so I didn’t get to go along on any shoots. But I did get to see some of the editing up close, which was pretty interesting. When Dave Brubeck gave a concert at George Washington University that fall, Hedrick Smith Productions got a number of tickets, and I was able to go to the concert. We had really good seats, and we got to go backstage to meet Dave after the show. I was thrilled! Dave Brubeck was really nice and really sweet, a true gentleman. I was able to get my copy of “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia” signed and I got my picture taken with Brubeck. I don’t remember how long we talked to him, or exactly what I said to him, but he was kind and sweet and gracious, especially given the fact that he was 80 years old and had just played a two-hour concert. As we left the green room, he said, “Bye Mark!” to me. I thought to myself, “Dave Brubeck remembered my name!”  I also got to meet Brubeck again later that fall, in December of 2001, right before the documentary premiered on PBS. Hedrick Smith Productions organized a special event at Birdland in New York City. Part of the documentary was shown. I can’t remember if Brubeck played at Birdland, I don’t think he did. But a lot of famous jazz people were there, like George Wein, who started the Newport Jazz Festival, and jazz critic Ira Gitler, who had panned “Time Out” when it was originally issued, but he had since come around to appreciating Brubeck. But the person besides Brubeck I was most excited about seeing in person was Joe Morello, the drummer in Brubeck’s Classic Quartet, who supplied all those different time signatures and of course who played the famous drum solo on “Take Five.” I got to meet all of these jazz legends, which was pretty amazing. Joe Morello was a really nice guy to talk to; I was floored to be meeting the drummer who had played on all those famous records. I also met some of the members of Brubeck’s current group, drummer Randy Jones and bassist Michael Moore, and Brubeck’s son Chris, who has followed in his father’s footsteps as a musician and performer. (Nearly all of Brubeck’s children are musicians, and he played with them many times over the years.) I met Brubeck again that night at Birdland and I got another autograph from him. I can’t remember what I said, I don’t think I talked to him for very long-there was a long receiving line of people waiting to talk to him. And next to Brubeck, of course, was his wife Iola, an amazing woman who helped Brubeck immensely during every phase of his career. Dave and Iola were married for 70 years. She stood by him when they were dirt poor, helped him get concert bookings, and co-wrote songs with him. Theirs was a true partnership. I got to meet Iola backstage, and she was, like her husband, very nice and very sweet. 

After my semester in Washington, I saw Dave Brubeck perform live every time he came to the Twin Cities. I saw him in concert 5 times, once in D.C. in 2001, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in 2003, 2006, and 2008, and once at the Dakota Jazz Club in 2009, his last Twin Cities performance. Every time I saw him he put on a great show. His piano playing was always vibrant, rich, and dynamic. I was amazed at his stamina. He looked old when he shuffled to the piano bench, but then he would start playing and the years would melt away. And every time I saw him, he would play “Take Five,” still finding some new touches to add to that famous song. The Quartet that he led during his last decade was a terrific group, made up of Bobby Militello on alto sax, Michael Moore on bass, and Randy Jones on drums. Their interplay was always fun to see, you could tell they truly enjoyed playing with each other.

I’ve got a lot of Dave Brubeck CD’s, and I’ve never been disappointed with one. To me, his work was always fascinating to listen to, from his octet of the late 1940’s to his solo recordings of the 2000’s like “Private Brubeck Remembers” and “Indian Summer.” One of my favorite recordings is the Dave Brubeck Quartet live at Carnegie Hall in 1963. It’s a 2-disc set, and it captures his Classic Quartet of Brubeck, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums at the peak of their powers. One of the most thrilling moments is a version of “Blue Rondo al a Turk” taken at breakneck pace that the group somehow pulls off. It’s just wonderful.

Dave Brubeck was someone who was not spoiled by his fame and good fortune; he was a truly nice guy who loved making music. And he was a man who stood up for the right things, like refusing to play in the South when concert halls said he couldn’t play there with an integrated band. The world is a much better place for having had Dave Brubeck in it and the world is poorer now that he’s gone. Dave Brubeck led a wonderful life, and he will always be fondly remembered by those who heard his music and those who knew this great man. 

Some of my favorite Brubeck recordings are:

Jazz at Oberlin-A wonderful concert recording, Brubeck’s first big album.

Jazz: Red Hot, and Cool-Features the original version of Brubeck’s classic song “The Duke.” Also features a classic album cover, with Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and model Suzy Parker.

Brubeck Plays Brubeck-Dave’s first solo album, and first album of all originals, features the original version of “In Your Own Sweet Way.”

Jazz Impressions of Eurasia-This 1958 disc shows Brubeck eagerly soaking up other musical cultures and different time signatures. In Joe Morello, he’s finally found the drummer who can handle tricky time signatures.

Time Out-The quintessential Brubeck recording, featuring the legendary “Take Five,” ironically one of the few tunes the Quartet ever recorded that Paul Desmond wrote, and “Blue Rondo al a Turk.” At the time, Columbia Records balked at releasing the album, as it featured all original songs-meaning there were no standards that everyone already knew, it had an original piece of abstract art on the cover, and all the songs were in time signatures other than 4/4, so how could anyone dance to it? Fortunately smarter heads prevailed. Time Out sold a million copies and went to number 2 on the Pop Albums chart.

Time Further Out-The 1961 “sequel” to Time Out, it features more songs in unusual time signatures, like the classic “It’s a Raggy Waltz” and “Unsquare Dance.”

For All Time-A box set of all of Brubeck’s “time” recordings for Columbia, an essential purchase, even if you already have “Time Out” and “Time Further Out.” 

Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall-This 1963 concert is just amazing. Brubeck, Desmond, Morello and Eugene Wright are all at their best for this wonderful concert. We’re lucky this show was taped.

Jazz Impressions of New York-1964 set of great songs, showing Brubeck’s range as a composer. Features the dynamic “Theme from ‘Mr. Broadway’” and the lovely and lyrical “Summer on the Sound.”

Jazz Impressions of Japan-Another great 1964 album, featuring the rocking “Toki’s Theme” and the beautiful and haunting “Koto Song.”

Buried Treasures-This long-forgotten 1967 live date wasn’t released until 1998, but it’s a wonderful concert from one of the Classic Quartet’s last tours.

Their Last Time Out-And this is the very last performance of the Classic Quartet, from December, 1967. (Well, until they reunited briefly in 1976.) This recording was just issued in 2011, and it’s a wonderful concert, showing that the Quartet was still vibrant and terrific to hear. But Brubeck had made up his mind to take a break from the road and to try new things. He was back on the road less than a year later with a new group.

1975: The Duets-This disc features only Brubeck and Paul Desmond, recorded just two years before Desmond’s early passing. It highlights the musical ESP they shared, and the wonderful way their playing complimented one another.

London Flat, London Sharp-A great recording of Brubeck’s last Quartet, from 2005. It shows that his playing was still as good as ever.

Indian Summer-This solo 2007 disc is the most recent Brubeck album to be released. Hopefully some live shows from the past few years will surface someday. But this is a fitting final album for Brubeck, nostalgic and elegiac without being overly sentimental. His piano playing was still touching and moving. Thanks for all the wonderful music, Dave Brubeck.

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