Dusted Reviews

Dave Brubeck - The Definitive Dave Brubeck on Fantasy, Concord Jazz, and Telarc / Legacy of a Legend

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Dave Brubeck

Album: The Definitive Dave Brubeck on Fantasy, Concord Jazz, and Telarc / Legacy of a Legend

Label: Concord

Review date: Mar. 3, 2011

Not only is pianist Dave Brubeck still around to celebrate his 90th birthday, he has a respectable touring itinerary booked to take him up to 91 (on December 6, 2011). He’s well past the age of being an elder statesman; there’s practically no one else of his generation left alive, let along playing. These two double CDs survey every decade of his career, and their release invites a consideration of the man’s legacy.

Too many great jazz musicians didn’t get their flowers until they were buried; hell, Herbie Nichols didn’t get his due until he had been in the ground over three decades. Not so Brubeck; he got his face on Time in 1954, scored a rare Top 40 hit with “Take Five,” and even got an award from the US State Department for his band’s service as jazz ambassadors in the 1950s and ‘60s, as well as the role his music played in warming up the 1988 Reagan-Gorbachev summit.

The guy at the top is always a target, and so it has been for Brubeck. During his ascent he was identified with West Coast cool jazz, which was derided in some quarters for its polite restraint (some might say whiteness), as well as admired for its sophistication and tunefulness. Brubeck was a gifted pianist from the start. He recorded “I Found A New Baby,” the first track on the Concord set, in 1942, when he was still in college. Reportedly, he had to sneak into the University of the Pacific radio station after-hours to do so, and he takes the tune at a blinding clip without ever tripping up. But it was his studies after WWII with the French classical composer Darius Milhaud that pointed him down the golden path. Milhaud encouraged him not to pick between classical and jazz, but to put the two together; Brubeck’s claims to innovation rest on his introduction of precisely plotted counterpoint into jazz composition and his breaking of the 4/4 time signature barrier.

The first disc of the Concord set charts Brubeck’s rise to fame, and it gives a fair picture of his strengths and weaknesses. His early Octet and Trio sides find the ingratiating face of standard material like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “That Old Black Magic,” but strip out the corniness that can easily sink such fare. On the other hand, Brubeck’s fortissimo tilt at “Laura” feels unnecessarily gaudy; sure, he’s handy at the keys, but you won’t love the tune anymore because of the way he shows you. It wasn’t until the arrival of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond that things fell into place. Desmond’s light, airy tone complemented the bulk and flash of Brubeck’s playing, and the presence of a strong soloist helped him to lighten up. A brief version of “Lulu’s Back In Town,” which was recorded in 1951 or 1952, captures their effervescence, which earned them fans beyond the jazz ghetto. He toured colleges, building a large audience that made his quartet a plum picking for Columbia Records.

There’s nothing from Jazz Goes To College, his debut for the label, on Legacy of a Legend, but it was the success of that record that landed his face on the cover of Time. This success allowed Brubeck to assert himself and chase his dream of being a composer. He started recording originals, and it was on an indulgence that initially put some noses out of joint in a few of Columbia’s window offices that he scored his biggest triumph. In the late ‘50s the label preferred its jazz groups to include some standards on every LP; Time Out was composed entirely of originals by Brubeck and Desmond in non-standard time signatures. A 45 containing two of them, “Blue Rondo A La Turk” and “Take Five,” was a massive hit in 1960; with their alternately frenetic and floating rhythms and Desmond’s light, nimble melodies, they became the respectable sound of jazz for the pre-Beatles era.

Disc one of Legacy… is the most consistently engaging listen of the four CDs under consideration. Aside from one solo tune and a collaboration with singer Jimmy Rushing, it’s all performed by the Quartet. The second disc shows that while they could sustain what they were doing, they had a hard time taking it any further; there are guest spots for famous singers and further attempts to mine alternative time signatures, but the music essentially stayed the same during a decade when music around Brubeck went through enormous changes. When he broke up the Quartet in ‘67, it was to write symphonies, but that’s not what you hear in the second half of disc two. No, there are just a few tunes from the Quartet’s last days and a couple more with a band co-led by Brubeck and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan that are swell toe-tappers but must have sounded rather fusty next to the seismic changes being wrought by Coltrane and Miles, or even the ambitious suites that Duke Ellington was making in his final years.

Disc two of The Definitive… picks up the thread 12 years later and it doesn’t offer any examination of Brubeck’s orchestral ambitions, either. Instead it focuses on his work between 1982 and 2004 with small groups (that often included his sons). There are a few moments of bright clarity — “Koto Song” from 1982, and an uncharacteristically joking goof with Christian McBride from 1995 — and plenty others that just trundle along, dignified but unremarkable. They confirm that the man is still out there and that he can still play, but they don’t add much to what he accomplished half a century ago.

By Bill Meyer

Read More

View all articles by Bill Meyer

Find out more about Concord

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.