Few jazz artists are better known than Dave Brubeck — by fellow musicians, by jazz aficionados and by the public at large.
The 1959 record Time Out stands as one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Along with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, the Dave Brubeck Quartet and their long run of successful albums on Columbia formed the signature sound of the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Brubeck’s father was a cattle rancher, while his mother originally planned to be a concert pianist. Growing up near San Francisco, the young Brubeck’s plans to follow his father to the ranch fell to his talent and love for jazz. His innate talents in harmony and counterpoint led to studies with composer Darius Milhaud, among others. In Europe during the Second World War, he formed a band — The Wolfpack — through which he met his longtime playing partner Paul Desmond in 1944. He made his first recording — leading an octet — upon his return to California in 1949, and made recordings almost continuously after that.
In January, 2011, I had the great honour of meeting Brubeck and introducing him at a concert at Koerner Hall in the Royal Conservatory. It turned out to be his last concert in Toronto; he passed away in early 2012.
Brubeck was as well known for his commitment to civil rights as to jazz; the quartet was one of the first integrated groups to achieve national success. His interest in rhythms and time signatures not common in jazz broadened horizons everywhere.
With artists of this calibre, choosing five of their best albums is a challenge. With Time Out remaining one of the most well-known albums of all time, I’ve chosen a few of my favourite Dave Brubeck recordings that are slightly off the beaten path.
The Riddle (1960)
Recorded in the same year as his most famous album, The Riddle may be the least known of all the LPs recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. This might be because Paul Desmond was not in the lineup; instead, clarinetist Bill Smith, a member of Brubeck’s original octet, sat in with bassist Eugene Wright and Joe Morello on drums. All of the tunes were based on the old English folk song, Heigh Ho, Nobody Home.
Time Further Out (1961)
This sequel to Time Out led off a series of Time-themed albums that continued Brubeck’s experiments with unconventional time signatures. For example, Unsquare Dance is in 7/4 (seven beats to the bar). Maori Blues reflects the quartet’s extensive world tours, which introduced the musicians to new cultures, rhythms and sounds.
Live at Carnegie Hall (1963)
This superbly recorded double-LP set captures the quartet at the top of its very considerable game. Joe Morello was getting over the flu and the New York newspapers were on strike, but that was no matter — the hall was packed for this event. The quartet stretches out at greater length than was typical for studio recordings of that era, including a 14-minute Morello showcase, Castilian Drums. Brubeck recorded several other live albums, but this remains the best.
The Real Ambassadors (1962)
Intended as a jazz musical, with lyrics by Brubeck’s wife Iola, this project brought together Louis Armstrong with the Dave Brubeck Quartet to make a strong statement on civil rights. Armstrong let his true, strong feelings show in the studio session that produced this album, but the musical had only one performance — unrecorded — at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962. The music is unexpected, the performers superb. This little-known gem deserves your attention.
Live at the Berlin Philharmonie (1970)
Recorded three years after the breakup of the “classic” quartet, this live recording is a powerful set recorded with Jack Six on bass, Alan Dawson on drums and Brubeck’s old friend Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax. The highlights include Limehouse Blues and a 14-minute version of Duke Ellington’s Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, in which Brubeck moves through all of his styles, including stride piano.
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