A Quartet of Five

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

Red Hot and Cool also introduces "The Duke," which emerges with a shining melodic intensity while hitting every key as it traverses its two or three chords per measure. You could say it foreshadows "Giant Steps" as a harmonic labyrinth, except that Coltrane conceived his steeplechase for improvisation, and "The Duke" is a set piece. "Indiana" has a splendid Brubeck solo, intense and prolix yet linear and swinging—if he had quit right then, he might now have a place in the pantheon with Herbie Nichols. But he was just getting started and fast becoming an issue. You couldn't ignore him, but you could try. The 1955 Newport Jazz Festival souvenir booklet, hardly a critical treatise, says Desmond is "officially a sideman with the Dave Brubeck quartet" but is "to some of his admirers the most important feature in that organization." His boss is merely the leader of "the most commercially successful small combo in the history of jazz."

It became a Lennon and McCartney thing. Desmond was the hip Beatle and Brubeck was the nice guy who finished first. While it was good to know genuine niceness exists, Martin Williams memorably observed, niceness was not the purpose of art. Joe Goldberg and Whitney Balliett included profiles of Desmond only in, respectively, Jazz Masters of the 50's and American Musicians II. Both San Franciscans, Dave was the brash son of a rancher who wanted to write cantatas and masses and pop songs and played as though he were bringing Jericho to its knees, while Paul was a quietly witty intellectual who spurned leadership offers and said he wanted to sound like a dry martini. Dave married, produced many children, built elaborate homes; Paul remained single, dreaming of Audrey in a New York apartment. Dave appealed to the masses, who tolerated Paul; Paul appealed to the elite, who didn't tolerate Dave.

After the classic quartet came into being, with Gene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums, and Time Out hit the charts, it became de rigueur to like everything about Brubeck except Brubeck. As John Ford said when The Informer won Oscars for score, screenplay, actor, and director while the biggest prize went to Mutiny on the Bounty: "I guess they liked everything about it except the picture." Desmond insisted that Brubeck was a superb accompanist, but insiders figured he was being tactful. Musicians covered his hooky tunes, but insiders dismissed them as cute or pretentious. Jazz players as diverse as Armstrong, Rushing, McRae, Mulligan, Alan Dawson, and Anthony Braxton wanted to play with him, but insiders assumed it was a commercial thing. Yet Desmond, who made six RCA albums with Jim Hall, never played as passionately under his own steam as he did with Brubeck, a self-effacing accompanist however blunt his solo attack.

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

The Brubeck-Desmond quartet lasted 17 years, until 1967, followed by reunions, and its pleasures derive directly from the contrast between the two men and the context the leader created—the original themes are rigorously arranged so that you are always aware of the contributions of all four men. This is not to say that Brubeck the pianist can't be a thudding bore. But not to acknowledge his authorship of some of the most diverting and original albums of the period is dumb. Brubeck is a gifted composer of melodies that settle in the brain like fleas, but melody abandons him as soon as he starts to improvise, melody gives way to rhythm and harmony. Yet he has lyric moments, including the just reissued Jazz Impressions of Japan (1964).

Here the solos are more evocative than the tunes, which unconsciously parody Asian music. "Tokyo Traffic" is typically fleshed out on the head, and if the gong is a bit ripe, the solos are occidentally cool: Desmond interpolates "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and Dave quotes and requotes, almost as motifs, "High Society" and "How Dry I Am." When he plays this well, you fear Wagnerian thunder, but on this album it never comes. It's bombast free. Some of the selections are supposed to convey deeper feelings than they do—Brubeck's variation on "The City Is Crying" is more affecting than the theme. When he returns to the blues ("Osaka Blues," "Koto Song") he is on firmer ground. Yet by 1964, his studio tracks were getting shorter. One of his cleverest blues from the period, "Mr. Broadway," is treated like a potential single on Jazz Impressions of New York. Better versions of that theme and "Koto Blues" can be heard on Buried Treasures (1967), first released in 1998. That's a concert recording, and Brubeck is always at his best with the fifth member in attendance.

The 1963 Carnegie Hall album is exemplary. The opening "St. Louis Blues" begins with a spare Desmond solo, followed by Wright, who finishes his solo with an E natural, which Brubeck makes a big deal of in the liner notes. For a man steeped in learned harmonies, Brubeck derives much pleasure from the basics, like playing naturals where the key demands flats. He repeats the E natural while trying to figure out what the hell to do next. Soon, he begins pounding the beat, four to the bar. When Erroll Garner does that, he sounds like he's strumming a guitar; Dave is moving furniture. When he plays against the time, though, Morello and the underrated Wright, who has his own way of superimposing meters, are right there. Still, Brubeck keeps pounding. He and his audience don't mind patches of thinking aloud, because they know this is foreplay.

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