The Unknown Dave Brubeck

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 12.19.12 in Spotlights

Jazz Impressions Of The U.S.A.

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Naturally enough, obituary writers focused on the milestones in Dave Brubeck’s career: his early, proto-cool octet, umptyzillion ’50s college dates with his long-running quartet, the Disney waltz “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” Take Five with its oddball rhythm patterns, musical revue The Real Ambassadors with Louis Armstrong and his occasional classical compositions. Sketching a career so extensively documented — his recordings span nearly 70 years — necessitates short-shrifting many worthy recordings. Here are a few you might have missed.

The early college tours that helped establish Brubeck’s classic quartet yielded numerous concert LPs — Jazz at Oberlin, Jazz at the College of the Pacific, Jazz Goes to College, Jazz Goes to Junior College. But the band also brought back memories of getting out there and back. Brubeck composed “Plain Song,” a highlight of the 1956 studio album Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A., on the road somewhere between Yankton, South Dakota and Iowa City; the repetitive alto melody and piano solo represent the rolling-in-place flat landscape, Norman Bates’s 2/4 bass thump and Joe Morello’s flicks of brushes on snare are the rhythm of bus tires rolling over concrete highway slabs. On the pastorale “Summer Song,” Brubeck’s piano intro sets up the hook, but then Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone runs with it, through one pretty, perfectly formed improvised chorus after another. There are urban numbers too — “Curtain Time,” “Sounds of the Loop” — but the breezy swing of the rustic stuff (including a horseback-loping “Ode to a Cowboy”) trumps the city-slick.

Much has been written about the creative contrast/tension between the urbane, unflappable Desmond and the easily excited pianist: one suave and poised, one jumping up and down on the piano bench. But Brubeck’s melodies gave the altoist plenty to dig into.

Once they expanded their territory beyond North America, the quartet brought back more than tricky rhythms like “Blue Rondo a la Turk”‘s 9/8. Like Duke Ellington, Brubeck made music based on his touristic impressions. The 1964 recording Jazz Impressions of Japan begins with “Tokyo Traffic,” written by Brubeck his first day in-country, a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of Hollywood Asianisms: Morello’s mock-kabuki woodblocks and ceremonial gong punctuate a melody drawn from a pentatonic scale. (Brubeck says their Tokyo audience got the joke: it’s a tourist snapshot of obvious scenery.) “Toki’s Theme” plays with Japanese hipsters’ embrace of modern rock. But Brubeck doesn’t neglect the contemplative mode, as composer or pianist. “Fujiyama” is one of his prettiest slow winding melodies, perfect for Desmond’s melancholy lyricism. (So is “Koto Song.”) The insistent bass figure underlining “Zen Is When,” left over from a 1960 session, curiously anticipates Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

The iconic album Take Five took off in the early ’60s, spawning four sequels (where, in truth, those 5/4, 7/4, 9/8 and 11/4 time-signatures can sound rounder, less painstakingly counted-out). By now the ¬¬quartet mostly recorded original material. A notable exception is Angel Eyes, recorded in 1962 and ’5, and devoted to Matt Dennis songs. The name may not ring a bell with devotees of the American popular songbook, but his tunes will. This batch includes “Angel Eyes,” weepers “Everything Happens to Me” and “The Night We Called It a Day,” and Von Freeman favorite “Violets for Your Furs.” The quartet’s “Let’s Get Away From It All” is speedier than Fats Waller’s ambling take, and the splashy rhythms of “Will You Still Be Mine” unleash the keyboard percussionist. This is the Brubeck who caught the young Cecil Taylor’s ear. (For what those pianists share, hear “Maori Blues” on Time Further Out.) The faster ones also bring out the rhythm player in Paul Desmond. He didn’t need fancy time signatures to superimpose his own shifty syncopated beats.

By the 1970s, the quartet was over, and the pianist often teamed with three of his sons as Two Generations of Brubeck. A new movement preoccupied with odd time signatures had arisen — jazz-rock fusion — and the second-wave Midwestern avant-garde was ascendant. There were half-hearted attempts of link Brubeck with either movement. Witness the Two Generations’ 1974 “Mr. Broadway,” an old 6/8 Brubeck TV theme reborn as fast jazz rock, with Dave and son Darius on dueling piano and electric piano and son Danny bashing like Billy Cobham at the traps. (Jerry Bergonzi’s on soprano sax.)

Four months later, for the album All the Things We Are with Roy Haynes on drums, Brubeck was joined by Chicago vanguardist (and great admirer) Anthony Braxton and/or cool contrapuntalist Lee Konitz on altos, meetings of historic more than musical interest. (Konitz is on “Like Someone in Love” and “Don’t Get Around Much,” Braxton on Dave’s signature ballad “In Your Own Sweet Way,” and both saxists on “All the Things You Are.”) More satisfying is a loose reunion with Paul Desmond, 1975: The Duets. Brubeck had calmed down considerably from his prime — he revives 1956′s “Summer Song” as a piano solo — and Desmond sounds ever more wistful, the alto’s Stan Getz.

The putdown “bombastic” plagued Brubeck for decades. There’s no denying he could go overboard, early — as on a long, live “At A Perfume Counter” from 1955. “Exuberant” is probably a better word for his youthful excesses at the ivories. The title of one late-period album, 2007′s solo Indian Summer, sets the tone: the warm side of autumn when days grow short. The pace is unhurried, the mood reflective, the selections a thematic blend of standards (“Indian Summer,” “September Song,” “Memories of You”) and originals — including one final “Summer Song,” harking back to the years when Brubeck was king of the road.