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 Timecover, 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 Outskyrocketed 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.

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 Encounterssampler, which is entertaining, though you would do better to get the complete Real Ambassadorsand 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 Coolrefers 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.

Red Hot and Coolalso 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'sand 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 Outhit the charts, it became de rigueur to like everything about Brubeck except Brubeck. As John Ford said when The Informerwon 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.

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.

Orgasm is Brubeck's true signature—all the fancy fractions in the world cannot disguise that. He gets there by stockpiling thicker and thicker chords in drummed patterns, before blurting into a world of ecstatic consonance. Sure enough, he soon finds his wings and you don't know if the audience is applauding in joy or relief. Just in case it wants more, a Morello solo follows. You don't hear many marathon drum solos today, but in 1963 they were unavoidable—Tony Williams recorded his "Walkin' " solo that year and every Monk concert had a Frankie Dunlop extravaganza. Stars like Blakey, Roach, Candido, Rich, and Krupa were expected to stretch out. So toward the end of the concert Morello does 10 minutes, and while these things do not usually travel well, his playing is so epic it will hold your attention at least once.

Whether due to temporary exhaustion or canny teasing, however, orgasm is not automatic. "For All We Know" showcases the Brubeck who drives nonbelievers nuts. Desmond spurns the melody five bars into the head and doesn't cite it again until the end of the chorus, when he restores the song's prettiest phrase ("tomorrow was made for some"). He continues, lyrical and sure. Now comes Dave on a journey of his own, playing variations on a theme composer J. Fred Coots would not recognize. His first chorus is conventional enough, with stabbing riffs and curt headlong arpeggios played against time and gliding niftily over the turnbacks until he hits a two-note figure (think "Cabin in the Sky") and a bright spot of melody, ending ominously with a couple of jabs to the bass clef. Those low notes, one every two bars, dominate the second chorus, until he mows down the changes and effects a clean slate on which to compile blockbuster chords for chorus three. He reverts to single-note phrases and seems about through, slowing down for dramatic emphasis, but it's a fakeout: He goes for a fourth chorus, by which time you wish he had put a lid on it, though you keep listening because you don't know what he's doing and suspect he doesn't either—a little romantic bravura, some swinging interplay with Morello, back to romance, straight time, three against four, and then—can it be?—a fifth chorus.

He is reenergized for "Pennies From Heaven," starting off with a Garneresque name-that-tune intro. Desmond is so hot by now he allows himself to squeak—a very good sign. Brubeck is at his best in his first two choruses, recomposing the material with a riff he develops before essaying a ferocious flurry. Then the chords start, but this time he generates a big band largesse and his daredevil persistence is convincing; he comes out of the chorus playing the closing riffs from "Four Brothers." He keeps it up for two more choruses, disarming the audience with passages on the beat, then behind the beat, and ultimately in a new lockstep beat of his own that finally gets folks whistling and stomping.

And so it goes—surging again and again with "It's a Raggy Waltz," the Morello feature, and "Blue Rondo a la Turk," which hits the audience's G-spot big time. You no longer hear such roars at jazz concerts. Dave makes a little joke about playing in nine, but the solos are in four, which is why the piece works—the contrast between the frantic Middle Eastern one-two one-two one-two-three and Desmond's descending octave into bluesville. Desmond is so up he recycles the same climactic piping riffs on "Raggy Waltz" and "Blue Rondo." When they finish the latter the crowd is pretty well freaked. It wants more. Do me all night, Daverino. When he responds with the "Take Five" vamp, you can hear people shouting, "Yaaaaayyyy."

Dave is still playing concerts. But even he may never see an audience like that again.

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