Sunday, February 03, 2013

Time Out for Time Out

The legacy of Dave Brubeck ...

We lost two huge musicians recently within days of one another: Dave Brubeck on December 5 and Ravi Shankar on December 11. I've been meditating on their importance to me ever since. Surely one of the best measures of an artist's stature is his or her ability to affect the lives of thousands or millions of people they have never met. These two men were as significant to me, as much a part of my life, as if they had been personal acquaintances or teachers.

I only saw Dave Brubeck in person one time, later in his career. It was a dinner show at the Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach back in the 1980's. He appeared that night with his son Darius playing trombone, and was as energetic and melodically inventive as ever. Missing of course was the iconic Paul Desmond who had passed away in 1977, taking with him one of the smoothest alto sax voices in jazz. Desmond's cool, almost clarinet-like sound paired with Brubeck's thoughtful and classically-trained piano lines defined what may have been the greatest jazz combo ever assembled. Apologies to the likes of Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and many others who are also deserving, but to my ear the Brubeck Quartet in its heyday achieved a perfect balance of cool and hot, introspective and ecstatic, composition and improvisation, that has seldom been matched.

I first came to hear them on LP's in the bedroom lair of my high school jazz buddy. When we wore out the local DJ with phone requests to play something from Time Out we finally had to break down and buy the album. A curious fact about it is that the record company, exhibiting the prevailing lack of instinct that has since made everyone realize how clueless they are, did not like the idea that there were no "standards" on the album. You were supposed to show a list of everyone's favorite titles on the cover (which is why they are known as "covers") and then slip in two or three of your own originals. Time Out was nothing but originals, including two that still loom huge over the landscape of jazz.

"Take Five," written in the unorthodox 5/4 time, shattered decades of 4/4 convention and did it not in a cerebral demonstration but with an infectious melodic romp that was impossible to get out of your head -- and feet. The even more contagious "Blue Rondo ala Turk" was in 9 beats -- not unprecedented in the usual form of 3-3-3, but divided into 2-2-2-3 by an insistent pulse from the drums and piano it became a dynamo of perpetual motion, driven forward by the forever unexpected rush at the end of each phrase. Time Out became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, truly one without which no collection is complete. So much for the wisdom of company executives.

We made other listening discoveries, like the rare recording with only three cuts on it that I wrote about once before, containing the enigmatic "Purple Moon" done by Desmond with his trio. We were pleasantly amazed when we identified it as being based on the opening motif of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (L'Sacre du Printemps). How audacious a choice of material was that? The cut was later re-released under the title "Sacre Bleu," which proved we got it right.

Jazz was also our ticket into the world of Beat literature, Eastern philosophy, and a whole cool hip world that we could hardly wait to grow into. By the time we did, the national sound track had shifted into Rock, but for those of us who cut our teeth on it jazz would always hold a place in our souls. All these years later its rich tradition continues in a new generation of practitioners, like the Marsalis brothers and Eric Alexander, who are here to assure us it's alive and well.

The sad thing about that long ago night at the Fountainbleau is that we stayed for the second show, knowing the later it gets the better the jazz ... only to find it was only half full. The dozing clientele having feasted, they were off to play canasta and go to bed. And this was Dave Brubeck! Ah well, it was their loss. And now we have all lost.

[Next time: Ravi Shankar]

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