Friday, March 20, 2015

10 Essential Dave Brubeck Albums

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

A wonderful photo of Dave Brubeck at the piano.

Collage of the album covers for 9 of the 10 Essential Dave Brubeck albums. I left off "Their Last Time Out," which has a nice cover, but someone had to be the odd album out. The cover for "Jazz Impressions of Eurasia" always makes me smile. I love the cover for "1975: The Duets," which looks like a wine bottle.
The jazz pianist Dave Brubeck was a remarkable artist. Brubeck was the rare jazz artist who was fortunate enough to become popular without compromising his ideas about jazz. He expanded the palette of jazz, as he let rhythms and melodies from cultures around the world influence his music, and he brought jazz out of strict 4/4 rhythm and into other time signatures. Brubeck was also a remarkable composer who wrote many memorable songs, as well as classical pieces like cantatas and oratorios. To cap it all off, Dave Brubeck was by all accounts the nicest person you’d ever want to meet. 

I had the good fortune of meeting Dave Brubeck twice. When I was in college I interned for the journalist Hedrick Smith, who at the time was working on his 2001 documentary “Rediscovering Dave Brubeck.” I had the chance to go backstage with Smith after a Brubeck concert and meet Dave, and he was very nice, a true gentleman. I wrote a longer piece about my memories of Dave Brubeck, and I was lucky enough to see him in concert 5 times. 

Dave Brubeck’s recording career spanned nearly sixty years, and he left behind many superb recordings. But where do you start with such a formidable discography? To help you get introduced to a great jazz artist, I compiled a list of the 10 Essential Dave Brubeck albums. Of course there are many more excellent recordings that Brubeck made, but these would be a great entry point into his music. Albums are listed in the order they were recorded.

“Jazz at Oberlin,” 1953. This album was a live recording made on the campus of Oberlin College. Brubeck was hugely popular among college kids in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and he made several live recordings on college campuses. After suffering a neck and back injury in a diving accident in 1951, Brubeck, then the leader of a jazz trio was looking for someone else to join his group so he wouldn’t have to be the only soloist. Fortunately, he found the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. Desmond’s light and airy tone was reminiscent of Stan Getz’s sound on the tenor saxophone, and it contrasted well with Brubeck’ pounding approach to the piano keyboard. Brubeck and Desmond’s musical partnership lasted for more than a quarter of a century, until Desmond’s death from lung cancer in 1977. “Jazz at Oberlin” shows the close musical connection that Brubeck and Desmond had on songs like “These Foolish Things” and “Just the Way You Look Tonight.”

“Brubeck Time,” recorded 1954. Dave Brubeck was so popular in 1954 that he made the cover of Time magazine. He was the first jazz musician to be on the cover of Time, and Brubeck himself said that the honor should have gone to Duke Ellington. The title of “Brubeck Time” was meant to play off of this connection, and the album cover even featured the painting of Brubeck that adorned the cover of Time. The album included the classic song “Audrey,” a beautiful ballad that was Desmond and Brubeck’s ode to Audrey Hepburn. There were also swingers like “Jeepers Creepers” and “Stompin’ for Mili” that highlighted Brubeck and Desmond’s facility with uptempo songs.

“Jazz Impressions of Eurasia,” recorded 1958. By 1958, drummer Joe Morello had joined Brubeck’s quartet, and now Brubeck had a drummer capable of playing the complex rhythms and time signatures that he wanted to experiment with. Paul Desmond and Morello didn’t get along at first, as Desmond found Morello’s style too loud and flashy for his tastes. Eventually though, Desmond realized what Morello could bring to the group. Brubeck was also coming into his own as a composer, and he wrote all of the songs on “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia.” The music was inspired by the sounds that Brubeck heard on a long world tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The album covers a lot of ground, from the stately serenity of “Brandenburg Gate,” to the tense and exciting rhythms of “The Golden Horn.” 

“Time Out,” 1959. This was Dave Brubeck’s most famous album, and his best-selling. It included the catchy hit “Take Five,” which was written by Paul Desmond. All of the songs on “Time Out” were in unique time signatures, ranging from the 5/4 meter of “Take Five” to the 9/8 of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Columbia Records, Brubeck’s label, was nervous about “Time Out” for three reasons: All of the songs were originals, with no “standards” that the record-buying public was already familiar with, the songs were in weird time signatures, which meant that people couldn’t dance to the record, and the cover featured an abstract painting by S. Neil Fujita. Of course, all those objections proved to be foolish, as “Time Out” went on to sell a million copies and peaked at number two on the Billboard pop album charts. Bassist Eugene Wright had joined the Brubeck Quartet in late 1958, and now the classic lineup of the Dave Brubeck Quartet was complete. “Time Out” is a classic album that was one of the first jazz albums I ever heard, and it remains fresh and vibrant more than 50 years after it was recorded. 

“Time Further Out,” 1961. A sequel of sorts to “Time Out,” “Time Further Out” was another exploration of unique time signatures, and featured classic Brubeck songs like “It’s a Raggy Waltz,” and the supremely catchy 7/4 song “Unsquare Dance.” The album was a superb showcase for drummer Joe Morello, who demonstrated his ability to master any time signature thrown at him. Brubeck went on to record further albums of unique time signatures, “Countdown-Time in Outer Space,” “Time Changes,” and “Time In,” which are all excellent.

“The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall,” 1963. Before this live performance in February 1963, Joe Morello was recovering from the flu, and didn’t feel like playing. Eugene Wright, Paul Desmond, and bandleader Dave Brubeck all felt a little uptight. But you can’t tell any of that on this amazing two-disc set of an unforgettable concert. From the opening of “St. Louis Blues,” you can tell that this band is cooking, swinging their absolute hardest. Brubeck’s solo finds him charging aggressively ahead like a locomotive. Morello has a wonderful solo on “Castilian Drums.” All of the music is outstanding, but the highlight has to be the super fast version of “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” When Brubeck starts the song you think there’s no way the group will be able to keep it going at that pace, but they do. This concert showcases the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the peak of their powers.

 “Jazz Impressions of Japan,” 1964. A superb album full of the sounds and textures that Brubeck absorbed during the Quartet’s tour of Japan in 1964. It includes the catchy “Toki’s Theme,” which is close as Brubeck ever came to rock and roll, as well as the moving “Koto Song,” which was a highlight of Brubeck live performances for decades to come. 

“Their Last Time Out,” recorded in 1967. Unreleased until 2011, this two-disc set features the very last concert of the classic lineup of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, comprising Paul Desmond on alto sax, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums. Brubeck wanted a break from touring so he could focus on writing longer pieces of music. Within a year Brubeck was back on the road with a new group. The classic lineup would reform for a brief 25th anniversary tour in 1976. “Their Last Time Out” is not only a historic concert; it’s also full of great music, as these four men were all at the top of their games. There are songs that were staples of Brubeck’s concerts, like “St. Louis Blues,” “Take the A Train,” and of course “Take Five,” but also “Cielito Lindo” and “La Paloma Azul” that the Quartet had recently recorded for the “Bravo! Brubeck!” LP.

 “1975: The Duets,” 1975. This album of duets between Brubeck and Paul Desmond shows off their deep musical connection. The music is made more poignant by the fact that Desmond died of lung cancer less than two years after this album was recorded. Highlights include a moving version of “Koto Song.”

“Indian Summer,” 2007. This album of piano solos was the last recording released by Dave Brubeck in his lifetime. As befitting the title, the songs are mainly ones from Brubeck’s youth, as he looked back over a lifetime of music. “Indian Summer” proved that Brubeck was still a vital jazz artist in his 80’s. 

Dave Brubeck left behind many wonderful recordings, and he will continue to be remembered as one of the key American jazz artists of the 20th century.


Uncle E said...

Hey Mark'

I nominated your blog for an award. If you can, head on over to my site to see what I've written about you and to accept!


Mark said...

Hey Ian, thanks so much! Sorry I didn't respond sooner, I've been busy training for a new job! I always appreciate your shout outs!

Richard Weise said...

DAVE DIGS DISNEY... I was a freshman in high school (late 50s and early 60s) when I was introduced to the Dave Brubeck Quartet via an album "DAVE DIGS DISNEY". I loved it then and still love it. I listen to it often, on a CD. Each arrangement is a sincere work of musical art. Although they're all gone, except for Gene Wright, Brubeck's quartet will continue to leave a musical statement for a very long time. DAVE DIGS DISNEY is one of my picks to be in the top ten, because if that album/CD is a person's first experience with JAZZ, that person will feel it's affect for a long time.