Monday, November 28, 2005:

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Eugene Wright, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, and Joe Morello
And today, Brubeck: my other favorite pianist. Brubeck's best known for his work with odd time signatures--often foregoing 4/4 (and, for that matter, 2/4, 3/4, and 6/8) in favor of ones farther afield, like 9/8, 7/4, 6/4, and of course 5/4, which netted the Quartet their biggest hit with Paul Desmond's "Take Five." It's a good track, in spite of its overexposure; there's a brilliant infectious swing to it and the saxophone solo is on point. But I don't want to post that one, as everyone's heard it anyway.

Brubeck developed an interest in polyrhythm through his work on his family's ranch: the various machines' noises would intersect and diverge in patterns he found intriguing. He wanted to stay with his family and work on the ranch but his family struck a deal with him that he would go to college and become a vet before returning to work on the ranch; while there, he realized his interest was in music. He almost didn't graduate when one of his professors discovered he couldn't read music, but some of his other professors intervened on his behalf and convinced the dean to let him graduate. After that he served in the Army, then played various low-paying gigs, worked odd jobs, and had his trio (interrupted by diving into shallow water, followed by a stay in the hospital in traction) before making it big with his Quartet.

He's been accused of trying to paint jazz white, which strikes me as a cynical and unfair comment--people should do what they're best at doing, regardless of what social expectations are; and I think we're much better for having Brubeck playing piano rather than raising cattle. Also, I've just long thought him cool ever since hearing that he canceled a TV special in the 1950s because he found out the station wasn't going to show Eugene Wright on camera; and that he also canceled a number of shows because he got some static about bringing Wright. I'd like to say that blatant racism doesn't happen anymore, but I live in the South and I know better.

I love Brubeck's work for the same reason I love Monk's: it's angular, peculiar, challenging, and catchy. He also sometimes pounds the hell out of the keys, which can be a big plus. I don't understand everything that's going on, but I find that the more I listen to it the more I do understand; the music is enjoyable enough on the surface but rewards careful attention.

So. Four tracks from Brubeck's other Time albums, in chronological order:

The Dave Brubeck Quartet -- Bru's Boogie Woogie
Brubeck lists this in on the liner notes as in 8/8; what I love about it is the way it shouts, hoots, hollers, says there's nothing more important right now than having a good time. And then it convinces you it's true.
[Time Further Out]

The Dave Brubeck Quartet -- Countdown
"Countdown" opens with a tympani pattern bouncing from one speaker to the other, then Brubeck sprints out the gate with a rollicking piano line I'd misidentified as stride, but which Brubeck identifies in the liner notes as boogie-woogie*. In comes the drums, with a left-handed erratic piano pulse, melodies wound over it, then it's back to tympani and piano trading licks.
*(It's been proven before that I don't know anything about boogie-woogie.)
[Countdown: Time in Outer Space]

The Dave Brubeck Quartet -- Shim Wha
Drummer Joe Morello wrote "Shim Wha"; it has Desmond on board, with his subdued and note-perfect contribution, mirrored at the beginning by Brubeck, before he goes off on a short exploration. There's an interesting drum solo towards the end; Morello's good for those. I love the feel of this one, the way the piano and drums together make it seem the song has had way too much coffee but is being forced to sit and wait for something.
[Time Changes]

The Dave Brubeck Quartet -- Travellin' Blues
Travellin' Blues is a melancholy peace which Brubeck wrote from some verses his wife sent him in a letter: he was travelling constantly and she was wondering what it must be like to be on the road so much, away from family. (It's probably a safe bet that she thought it better to sympathize than to nag--it's hard to imagine it didn't give him pause, maybe shift his perspective a bit.) At any rate, the song has a number of vocal versions, including by Carmen McCrae, but this isn't one of them. The bass is almost buried in the mix, the drums are brushed, the saxophone says its piece, quietly, and takes leave. And Brubeck did finally disband the Quartet to spend more time with his family.
[Time In]
Or, if you're going to buy all those, you could save some money and get them in the boxed set For All Time.

There are other Brubeck CDs I could pull from--one of some classical music he composed and performed with orchestra, another of solo pianos of war tunes, various concerts and studio CDs, and "Golden Horn" from Jazz Impressions of Eurasia has the most amazing piano/saxophone handoff I've ever heard, but I think I'll save all that for some future post.

PBS aired a documentary about Brubeck which looks interesting; their write-up is good but has the curious omission of the Wright/racists incident (I first read that in, I think, the Time Was boxed set's liner notes, which Wikipedia seems to have borrowed from a bit).


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