Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Inimitable Dave Brubeck

by Mark Richardson

Today, a news item on any number of  Internet sites and terrestrial stations announced the death of Dave Brubeck. Never heard of him?  Well, read on.

Actually, even better: watch and listen. Try this first; it's a performance of him with his group of perhaps their most famous and recognised piece, 'Take Five', as played in 1966:

Brubeck was a hugely influential composer and pianist. The album that featured that song was called Time Out, and it appeared in 1959. It's well worth checking out, whether by buying it or listening to it on Spotify. The album has had an extraordinary longevity, and remains one of the all-time best sellers of jazz albums, up there with Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert. Tracks from it, most commonly 'Take Five' but also 'Blue Rondo a la Turk' (see below), also turn up in advertisements and films, as well as being prime targets for sampling.

I say jazz, and you probably didn't even notice the use of the word earlier, because it seemed like an obvious word, having listened to/watched the YouTube clip. But in 1959, and even by 1966, it was a pretty contentious word to use in respect of Brubeck's work. 1959 was coincidentally also the date of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, and no-one seemed particularly outraged that his album was displayed in the Jazz section of record stores. But Brubeck's work was very different. He was playing thoughtful, tuneful, "light" and elegantly crafted pieces, pieces which were "pop"-like and thus offensive to the ears of hardened and bitter jazz purists (and there were a lot of them then, getting increasingly hardened and embittered, as more and more people showed they didn't really like the music that appealed to hard, bitter and judgemental jazzers and who then started liking other music, such as Brubeck's).

Music is music, though: ignore labels. Brubeck, and his long-time collaborator saxophonist Paul Desmond (on clarinet in the clip above), produced some marvellous music, and their work, along with other Brubeck compositions such as 'The Duke', should rightly be part of any decent collection. Transitory grumpiness from agenda-driven so-called purists aside, his music deserves respect. Check it out (starting with the two pieces below). As always, enjoy.

'Blue Rondo a la Turk':

New Yorker: "His music was brainy and catchy at the same time. The hummable melodies hid the crunchy harmonies, odd time signatures, and sophisticated counterpoint . . . Brubeck’s work embodied two of the generative tensions in creative music: the balance between predetermined structure and improvisational freedom, and between the individual and the ensemble. He recognized that increasing the complexity of the composed materials (whether through underutilized time signatures or through orchestral ambition) did not necessarily shackle the improviser. With the right players, it could be a spur pushing the performer toward new territory." Read the rest of the article here.

'Unsquare Dance' (featuring a memorable dance routine):

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