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A Dave Brubeck Primer

On October 24, 2019

How many jazz melodies can you sing without consulting the music beforehand? There’s John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things,” there’s Miles Davis’ “So What,” and there’s Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” These have been force fed to us for generations as the gold standards of melodic jazz. While Davis and Coltrane are the absolute pillars of jazz — as both unofficial originators and a gold standard to which all current players will be held against — Brubeck has always had a more mysterious relation to the modern canon.

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Born in California in 1920, Brubeck’s influence has manifested itself in many ways. He was an early adopter of cool jazz, a pioneer of West Coast jazz, and one of the first post-hard bop players to redefine a different kind of jazz outside of its dominant iteration. An absolutely delicate monster on the piano, Brubeck’s strength lay in his ability to mix heavy, menacing chords with delicate, quiet runs up the instrument’s higher notes. With Vinyl Me, Please’s re-issue of Brubeck’s seminal Jazz Impressions of Japan as the Classics Record of the Month this month, we decided to dive into the pianist’s expansive catalog and highlight a few favorites.

With more than 70 releases over a 50-year career, it’s nearly impossible to encapsulate the various styles and forms that Brubeck has helped start, elevate, or riff upon, but this list includes obvious standouts and some unexpected choices. Of course, there’s Time Out, his 1959 Columbia release that features “Take Five.” But there are also some rarities — a few not available on Spotify — and a silly, yet exciting choice. Brubeck’s career features the hilly contours of a California map, never predictable but always consistent. In the pantheon of jazz giants, Brubeck’s name rarely appears where it should. For his enormous impact, he’s still relatively overlooked. But make no mistake, Dave Brubeck is a generational talent, a defining voice of West Coast jazz — of jazz in its entirety.

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Dave Brubeck’s first quartet album isn’t available on Spotify, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth searching for. The record has elements of ragtime and more traditional modes of jazz blended with the hardpop style he’d appeal to later, in addition to some heady experimentation that introduced some of his more outré ideas in a palatable way. The piano solo on “Look for the Silver Lining” is a fascinating highlight, occupying nearly half of the song’s length without losing steam over this run time. He moves from heavy, angry chords to a more free-formed note-style performance, eventually returning to the song’s chorus to back up the great playing of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Dave Brubeck Quartet was released on Fantasy Records, a label Brubeck would semi-regularly return to after signing with Columbia. With Brubeck’s records selling extremely well for the label, the group acquired more jazz acts, including Chet Baker, before expanding into comedy and poetry LPs with releases from Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg. Later, they put out records from Vince Guaraldi and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Jazz at Oberlin

This is Brubeck’s most widely known live record, a smooth 37-minute journey that clearly displays the chops of both the pianist and his band. Still with Paul Desmond, this time Brubeck rounds out the group with Lloyd Davis on drums and Ron Crotty on bass.

It’s an understated album, but the group does get boisterous at times. The latter half of “These Foolish Things” envelops in a cascade of piano chords, although the brushed drums and walking bass keep the chaos under control. “Perdido” has much more energy, moving along with hard bop hits and speedy playing from Desmond. This record is perhaps most well known for Lloyd Davis’ performance, during which the drummer allegedly had an 103-degree fever. The show finds Brubeck’s group moving away from the constraints of hard bop throughout, favoring a cooler, simmering style and more experimentation from Brubeck’s soloing.

Dave Brubeck and Jay & Kai at Newport

After being introduced on stage, Brubeck announces his intention for the show: “We’d like to do all new things tonight. Not just because we’re recording, but I feel this is an opportunity to try some of the new things I’ve written. We’ll start out with a new ballad called, ‘In Your Own Sweet Way.’” Although Brubeck’s band is only featured on tracks 1-4, it's an interesting insight into Brubeck’s development as a songwriter. Recorded on July 6, 1956 and released later that year, the first two songs are Brubeck originals.

“In Your Own Sweet Way” is a tender ballad, with the trustworthy Paul Desmond leading the group. “Two Part Contention” is a bit stranger, with Desmond’s horn and Norman Bates’ bass aligning in knotty ways. Brubeck’s solo is repetitive and mesmerizing, a delightful concoction of style and substance.

Jazz Goes to College

Conceived by Brubeck’s wife as a way to expose younger audiences to jazz, this record compiles various tour stops around the country, an experience that Brubeck said was generally met with some hostility. College campuses were wary of exposing their students to a purveyor of the cool, mysterious genre, but the record betrays none of this nervousness.

Playing with Bob Bates on bass, Paul Desmond, and Joe Dodge on drums, the album is a coolly melodic time capsule of mid-’50s jazz. The album is one of Brubeck’s quieter, more contemplative releases, featuring a few songs co-written by Brubeck and Desmond. The highlight is “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which grows methodically, awash with Dodge’s cymbal work and the perky soloing of Desmond.

Time Out

This album is not only Dave Brubeck’s most popular release, but one of the most well-known jazz records of all time, thanks, in large part, to the inclusion of “Take Five.” Despite its commercial success and worldwide notoriety, the album was initially panned by critics and hesitantly embraced by Columbia.

Brubeck’s inspiration for the album came on a U.S. State Department sponsored tour of Eurasia, where he saw a group of Turkish street performers playing music in the odd-metered 9/8. He decided to base the album concept around this non-Western subdivision, giving the album a unique tilt that certainly sounds less foreign now that odd-metered music is prevalent in jazz. But with its 5/4 structure, “Take Five,” written by Desmond, still found commercial appeal. It’s an instantly famous melody, led by Desmond, but subtly underlaid by Brubeck’s vamping.

Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein

This record is an allusion to Brubeck’s 1956 album, Brubeck Plays Brubeck, but here, the pianist takes on compositions by Leonard Bernstein, while the classical composer conducts a performance of Brubeck tracks by the New York Philharmonic.

The album is an anachronism, released in 1961 but sounding like it could score a film from this decade or soundtrack a dinner date in the 1930s. The Philharmonic performances are staggering, bringing a life to Brubeck’s tunes otherwise unimaginable. Brubeck’s takes on Bernstein compositions are more understated, but breathtakingly gorgeous. These ballads come alive in the hands of Brubeck and his band, especially “I Feel Pretty,” which I somehow only relate to Adam Sandler in Anger Management.

Time Further Out

A follow-up to Brubeck’s most successful record, Time Further Out moves into pop territory with shorter songs split across an 11-song LP. Playing with Desmond, Morello, and bassist Eugene Wright, Brubeck’s group further explores odd time signatures, presenting them in a palatable, straight-forward way that doesn’t distract from the strong melodies and stronger playing. While the album is stellar, its accompanying artwork steals the show. It’s an abstract, modern work by Joan Miró, a subtle call to the intersection of visual art and jazz.

“Charles Matthew Hallelujah” is a touching tribute to Brubeck’s son, who was born shortly before this album was recorded. It’s a quick bop, with Brubeck and Desmond trading fours atop the staggering pace of Morello’s bass work. “Blue Shadows in the Street” sits in a 9/8 time signature, although the way the band plays the structure gives the tune a waltzing feel. Brubeck’s hands work in contest, his left playing heavy chords while his right meanders and explores the high keys of his instrument.

Dave Digs Disney

While the concept is kitschy and the songs can veer toward corniness, it’s thrilling to hear Brubeck and his band bring life to the Walt Disney catalog. Brubeck had been toying with this idea for a few years, but it wasn’t until a family trip to Disneyland that he was convinced to take on the concept over the course of an entire project. When the record came out, jazz was considered too classy and adult-oriented for the likes of Disney fans, but Brubeck’s melding of the two worlds eventually inspired musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis to tackle the catalog.

“Heigh-Ho” is a pleasing run through the Snow White classic. “When You Wish Upon a Star” is a beautiful take on the original, with Brubeck handling the melody and Paul Desmond taking a wonderful solo. The record originally came out as a mono mix, but stereo tracks were recorded as well. When stacked against each other, the latter reveals a new depth to the music that gives it a lasting power beyond a catchy concept.

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Will Schube

Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.

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