Dave Brubeck Turns 90 | Bleader

Dave Brubeck Turns 90

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Dave Brubeck in his early years
  • Dave Brubeck in his early years
Few jazz artists have been as maligned as much as pianist, composer, and bandleader Dave Brubeck. Judging from my years working in record shops, his iconic album Time Out (Columbia), which contains the bona fide hit "Take Five," was a jazz record that people who didn't care much about jazz tended to own. He became known as the guy who used wacky time signatures—usually five, seven, or nine beats to the bar—though despite his flexibility with meter, he was pretty stiff when it came to swing.

For many years Time Out was the only Brubeck album I owned, and I rarely listened to it. When I was a kid my mother would play it and talk about her years as a beatnik—by which she meant that during her art-school days she would occasionally wear a black turtleneck and tap along to "Take Five" on a set of bongos. Eventually I got over my knee-jerk dislike for the record. I mean, shit, it has Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. For ages, whenever I heard a recording by Brubeck's classic quartet—with drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright—I would focus on Desmond's brilliantly weightless but rigorous playing. But as it turns out, Brubeck's own charms were sneaking into my brain at the same time.

Last year British pianist Liam Noble made an excellent trio album called Brubeck (Basho), featuring both imaginative and straight renditions of Brubeck tunes, and it pretty much blew away the last tatters of my resistance. In an interview I did with Noble, he said, "I knew there would be actual jazz fans—the ones that go to the gigs—who do like him and who don't have the insiders/jazz musicians thing, that [Brubeck] is not a killing technician or that he doesn't swing like Wynton Kelly or that he comes off as a bit stiff. None of those things seem important to me. I didn't care about the technique as much as the sound." I think Noble cuts right to the heart of it—there's something magical in the sound of the quartet. Though you could never call it challenging or aggressive, it's buoyant, melodic, warm, and memorable.

Brubeck turns 90 today, and this afternoon at 4 PM CST Turner Classic Movies airs the premiere of the Bruce Riker documentary Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way, whose executive producer is noted jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood. There have also been a number of reissues celebrating Brubeck's milestone, the best of which are a pair of very affordable five-CD box sets from Sony Music that collect the quartet's best recordings. I've breezed through them over the past few days, and while I couldn't subsist on a diet of nothing but Brubeck, only one of the albums in those sets—1961's lugubrious, densely orchestrated Brandenburg Gate: Revisited, which shows the pianist at this most eggheaded and clunky—is anything but terrific.

Neither set has a title, but the first focuses on the quartet's experiments with odd time signatures, inspired by the success of Time Out. The second doesn't seem to have a unifying theme, and includes a solo Brubeck record, the aforementioned symphonic monstrosity, and a live album cut at one of the quartet's college gigs.

Brubeck has had some serious health issues of late—in October complications from pacemaker surgery meant he spent nearly three weeks in the hospital. But he's clearly a fighter—last week he played a weekend engagement at New York's Blue Note.

Today's playlist:

Max Neuhaus, Fontana Mix—Feed (Six Realizations of John Cage) (Alga Marghen)
Maria Bethania, Pirata (Quitanda)
Zoltán Pongrácz/Iván Patachich, Hungarian Electroacoustic Music (Hungaroton)
Jackie Oates, Hyperboreans (Unearthed/One Little Indian)
Morton Feldman, Routine Investigations, The Viola in My Life I, II, For Frank O'Hara, I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg (Montaigne)

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