A Quartet of Five

Dave Brubeck Cultivates a Crowd, Calibrates Time, and Finds His Wings

No postwar jazz musician has cultivated his audience like Dave Brubeck. His success has Pavlovian dimensions. The simultaneous release of Double Live From the USA and UK (Telarc), a lively two-CD set drawn from 1995 and 1998 concerts, and the long-delayed reissue of The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall (Columbia/Legacy), a two-CD set recorded in 1963, suggests that time, which he has calibrated and deconstructed for five decades, may have stopped for him, his music, and his audience. As soon as he leaps into the clanging 9/4 head of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" or the "Take Five" vamp, he elicits a bellowing roar rarely heard at concerts anymore. They're less feverish now, their stomps and whistles replaced by falsetto whoos, but these are still true believers. Brubeck has called the audience the fifth member of his quartet. Before intermission at the 1963 concert, he thanks it for "helping us along." In a time of rampant jazz politesse, their bursts of applause when a solo peaks and elated cries when it finishes are intoxicating.

By 1963, Brubeck's career had gone awry. From his earliest years in music, he presented himself as an avant-gardist. He had studied with Darius Milhaud and began his recording life with a stuffy Third Stream octet. After forming a quartet with Paul Desmond in 1951, he became known for all the avant-garde stuff that keeps crowds at bay: long performances, spontaneous improvisation, original compositions, counterpoint, world fusions, and polymeters, polytones, and anything else that can be polyed. Cecil Taylor once said, "I learned a lot from him. When he's most interesting, he sounds like me." But while Taylor effortlessly achieved penury and culthood, Brubeck was subjected to fame, riches, and the indignity of a Time cover, convincing many critics and listeners that he no longer merited serious consideration.

It may be difficult to imagine the popularity Brubeck enjoyed in the 1950s, even before Time Out skyrocketed him to the fringes of megapop. His horn-rims, square-faced smile, and stubbornly articulate defense of jazz and himself were ubiquitous. Even his name seemed emblematic: Like Miles, the informal Dave was appellation enough. The two were connected in other ways. When Dave was wrestling with the octet, which with typical bravado he described as "a major contributor to jazz," Miles was working with a nonet that really was. Modern jazz's two most famous vamps originated in 1959—the other one is Davis's "All Blues," in 6/8. Miles recorded Dave's "The Duke" and "In Your Own Sweet Way" and other pieces Dave made jazz-friendly, like "Someday My Prince Will Come," and pursued polymeters, though he didn't talk about it. Each man made a fateful mid-'50s switch from an independent label to Columbia, which is now reissuing everything it can find by them. But Miles has become a god and Dave, still active at 80, is more respected in classical circles than in jazz, where his clamorous audience is as isolated from the jazz mainstream as Dixieland fans.

Horn-rims, square-faced smile, stubbornly articulate defenses
photo: Don Hunstein
Horn-rims, square-faced smile, stubbornly articulate defenses

Brubeck and Desmond were always controversial. Eddie Condon once said Desmond sounded like a "female alcoholic"; for years you were not allowed to publish a review of Brubeck without using the word "bombastic." But in the beginning critics and musicians admired the quartet. Brubeck came up with a brilliant idea: touring colleges, creating a long-term audience while giving his bookings a veneer of hipster prestige, and then releasing records of the concerts. Those LPs established Fantasy as a going concern; one of them, Jazz at Oberlin (1953), would make many short lists of the decade's outstanding albums. On that session, Desmond abandons the ground melodies before he has time to establish them, and builds riff-laden cathedrals with fire and a slightly facetious intensity; he may be famous for being the altoist who didn't play like Charlie Parker, but on "Perdido," Bird hovers impressively, though it's the Desmond wit—twirling into a turnback with "The Music Goes 'Round and 'Round"—that elicits the audience's first cheers. Brubeck is wonderfully, stubbornly quirky, increasing the tension before springing the release. His block chords had not yet taken over, and his novel style engendered surprise.

In 1954, Columbia continued the pattern with Jazz Goes to College. Two minutes into "Balcony Rock," Desmond converses with himself, balancing phrases between two octaves; elsewhere he converses with Brubeck, affirming a weirdly fetching contrast between his ethereal lyricism and Brubeck's splayed 10-note chords—jazz goes to Valhalla. After graduation, Columbia recorded the quartet at New York's Basin Street, releasing tracks on Brubeck Time, including the eerily haunting blues "Audrey," a Desmond meditation triggered by a suggestion that he imagine Hepburn walking through the woods; and the long-unavailable Red Hot and Cool, the earliest of Columbia/Legacy's four recently reissued Brubeck titles (including the Vocal Encounters sampler, which is entertaining, though you would do better to get the complete Real Ambassadors and his albums with Jimmy Rushing and Carmen McRae). This admirable series is an antidote to the blue-rimmed "Columbia Jazz Masterpieces": good sound, original cover art and notes, addenda from Brubeck.

The title of Red Hot and Cool refers to a line of lipsticks Columbia was cross-promoting, though the cover simply seemed routinely cheesy—a red-mouthed model draping herself over the piano while Dave giddily smiles. The album serves as a fascinating transition to the time-code Brubeck. Dave shows off his interest in fractions on the opening "Lover," phrasing in waltz time as drummer Joe Dodge guns an insistent four-beat. The great a&r man George Avakian wants us to note "something very new" here and predicts it will create a "sensation." But there was nothing new about superimposing three over four—cf. Louis Armstrong's 1927 scat vocal on "Hotter Than That." The nearly 11-minute "Little Girl Blue," however, shows where Brubeck is heading. The Rodgers & Hart song is unusual, with a 36-bar AAB chorus divided as 12/12/8+4. The four bars coming off the bridge may have seemed too abrupt, because after playing the theme as written, Brubeck extends it by another eight for the solos, ending up with a 44-bar chorus. Desmond bites off two choruses with blues locutions and a touch of "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" before Brubeck puts the blues aside for a solo that is twice as long and compels attention with harmony, dynamics, and daunting cross-rhythms—melodic content is almost nil. This is Brubeck as Energizer Bunny, forging his way through brambles until he finds a clearing, and then forging some more. In the second chorus, you wonder how the drummer can keep track—probably by focusing on bassist Bob Bates, whose occasionally corny phrasing holds to an ironclad four-beat. Brubeck finishes the chorus with drumlike rhythms and goes into the third with figures that evade the changes as tenaciously as they do the downbeat. His last chorus is even more rhythmically abstract, and you feel relief when the quartet reasserts swing.

Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets

Concert Calendar

  • May
  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed

Find Any Show in Town