Let us now praise Brubeck 

Every now and then in the life of even the most casual music fan, an experience comes along that changes his outlook on the greatest of all the arts. For me, it was learning to dance to "Take Five."
I've written here before about the salutary impact of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's performance on my musical sensibilities, if not on my terpsichorean talents. [See "One Hat Trick Plus One Slam-Dunk Equals ... Jazz" (week of Nov. 15, 1999) in the SkyJazz Commentary Archives.]

The then-alien 5/4 meter was at first a stumper to the popular consciousness, but it taught me the concept of syncopation and helped tighten my irregular adolescent sense of rhythm. For that, all praise is due the tune's composer, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, who was Brubeck's partner for many years in the classic quartet.

But Desmond wasn't the only one who taught me a lesson about the mathematics of music. Bru himself has the time-sense of a physics professor and, even the straightest model, say a boogie woogie, might find him subdividing the beat as he solos over the steady rhythm section of drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright.

His math also translates to his melodies in an abstract way. By that I mean that his rhythmic sense somehow shapes melody into a thing both visceral and intellectual, a difficult feat, even more difficult to explain. "Time Further Out" [Columbia, 1961], the nominal sequel to "Time Out" [Columbia, 1959], is essential listening to understand this point. "It's A Raggy Waltz" combines, not surprisingly, ragtime and waltz time in such an integrated way that one finds it impossible to stumble over the difficult extra bars in the theme as one whistles or hums his way through the tune. "Charles Matthew Hallelujah" celebrates the birth of a son and, as Bru's piano shouts his joy, syncopation speaks the refrain, "I've a brand new baby boy! I've a brand new baby boy!" Other examples of this integration are found on this recording in the performances of "Bluette," "Unsquare Dance" and "Bru's Boogie Woogie." It's textbook stuff for a listener. And, praise heaven, "Time Further Out" is still in print.

That latter fact is all the more remarkable because 1959's "Time Out" remains one of the most popular recordings in the history of jazz and, on the basis alone of its claim as home to "Take Five," it would have been a tough act to follow. It should be noted here that the quartet issued ten albums between "Time Out" and "Time Further Out," so the listening public had no shortage of Brubeck material in the interim. But the identification between the two was a ligature of iron tempered by the fire of their similarities of title. The musical genetics of "Blue Rondo a la Turk," "Three To Get Ready," "Pick Up Sticks" and "Kathy's Waltz" suffuse "Time Further Out."

Between these two monuments came "Summit Sessions" [Columbia, 1960], a sentimental favorite of mine. It's the only recording I've heard of Bru and Thelonious Monk together, duetting on "C Jam Blues," and it's the first time I heard what later has come to be known as world music in a performance featuring Indian percussionist Palghat Raghu. Bru spread himself about some on this album, which features appearances by other such diverse artists as Peter, Paul and Mary, Tony Bennett, Charles Mingus, Leonard Bernstein and New York Philharmonic and, yes, even Pops himself, the great Satchmo, Louis Armstrong. Alas, it is no longer in print and I long ago lost my vinyl copy, so I honor it from a fond distance. If you find a copy, buy two and get in touch with me immediately.

It's strange to think from our perch in 2001 that Brubeck has been recording for 55 years, but this year's "Double Live from the USA and UK" [Telarc] can whisk backward an inquiring listener directly to 1946's "The Dave Brubeck Octet" [Fantasy/OJC], also still in print. In fact, someone willing to spend some time in the horse latitudes of the music shop can find a wealth of Brubeck material that has turned up over the years on obscure indie labels with names like "Tomato" and the quality of the performances is almost uniformly high.

Throughout it all, Bru swings, despite some charges of musical opportunism from purists, an allegation I've never understood. He had classical training and it's always in his style, but he's by no means Third Stream. His solos reek of algebra and trigonometry, but he's not the jazz equivalent of Bach. He slips the collar of a tune's formal structure and blasts into the unknown, but in the cloaks of a free jazzer he'd be as out of place as a fish in a tree. Polytonality and polyrhythms do not disguise the traditional elements of his work. He's sometimes gathered into the cool jazz fold, but he sweats when he works.
He swings. That's all there is to it.

Any Brubeck rewards a careful listen. And there is more than half-century's worth of music to digest for those callow in the ways of Brubeck. Here are a few recordings, just for starters:
"Jazz At Oberlin," [Fantasy/OJC, 1953, live]; "Jazz At The College Of The Pacific," [Fantasy/OJC, 1953, live]; "Jazz Goes To College," [Columbia, 1954, live]; "The Dave Brubeck Quartet At Carnegie Hall," [Columbia, 1963, live]; "Jazz Impressions Of Japan," [Columbia, 1964]; "Jazz Impressions Of New York," [Columbia, 1964]; "Last Set At Newport," [Atlantic, 1971, live]; "We're All Together Again (For the First Time)," [Atlantic, 1972]; "Back Home," [Concord Jazz, 1979]; "Tritonis," [Concord Jazz, 1980]; "Paper Moon," [Concord Jazz, 1981]; and "A Dave Brubeck Christmas," [Telarc, 1996].

Don't let the gaps fool you. Brubeck has been hard at work throughout his 55-year recording career, a remarkably strong track record for an 80-year-old ivory tickler. He still brings home the package with a ribbon on it.