Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Game On - The District

From the District - (09/23/09)

Whenever the phrase “hit jazz single” comes up and the laughter subsides, conversations often turn to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s recording of “Take Five” before dwindling into more sedate alternatives like Chuck Mangione and Kenny G. Unlike those Costco jazzbos, pianist Dave Brubeck is a straight-ahead practitioner with a thunderous attack and tasteful approach to songwriting. His “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke” became jazz standards as soon as they were released, with artists like McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Pharaoh Sanders taking a crack at his refined progressions. Fifty years after the release of his groundbreaking album Time Out, Brubeck is still swinging for the masses.

Born in 1920 in Concord, California, Brubeck was the first music graduate from the College of the Pacific unable to read sheet music, something that says as much about his innate skills as it did about the college’s curriculum. While serving in the army band during World War II, Brubeck met Paul Desmond, who would become a frequent collaborator until his untimely death in the late ’70s. Following the war, Brubeck studied with composer Darius Milhaud, counter-balancing his jazz education with a wade through more avant-garde waters. By the mid ’50s Brubeck had carved out a successful living mixing the high- and low-brow for malleable minds at college campuses everywhere. His 1954 release, Jazz Goes to College, was a collection of live performances that exemplified Brubeck and Desmond’s effortless timing and smart sense of swing. It was also the beginning of his run of hits with Columbia Records.

In the summer of 1959 Brubeck entered Columbia’s 30th Street studios in Manhattan supported by Desmond (alto sax), Eugene Wright (bass) and Joe Morello (drums) to record what would become a definitive jazz classic, Time Out. Part of the elite class of Columbia releases that included Mingus Ah Um and Kind of Blue, Time Out was a swinging stroll across odd time signatures and distant harmonies that found commercial success with “Take Five,” an off-balance drum feature that was Desmond’s lone contribution, which became a Top 10 pop hit shortly after its release. (In his will, Desmond bequeathed his performance royalties to the American Red Cross.)

As much as Charles Mingus redefined the limits of a horn section and Miles Davis revealed the power of scales, Brubeck and his band rewrote the unspoken limitations of time signatures, branching out into prime-number meters that were inexplicably danceable. The album was a beatnik’s puzzle, featuring Neil Fujita’s abstract cover design and seven original compositions that wound their way through the phonograph into smoke-filled rooms across America. Songs like the Eastern European blues “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Kathy’s Waltz” (an ode to Brubeck’s daughter misspelled by the album designer) are memorable melodies that are entertaining and innovative, not relying on rhythmic gimmicks to carry the weight. At the time of its release the album was widely panned by critics but grew in stature, eventually becoming the first million-selling jazz album after reaching No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts.

After Time Out secured his future, Brubeck went on to tour extensively with the quartet before settling to focus on loftier compositions and raise a family. His home-grown troupe of musicians has since their teen years supported their father on stage and in the studio. Now in his late 80s, Brubeck is as busy as ever, with an upcoming itinerary that will find him behind keyboards from Los Angeles to New York before being recognized in December at the Kennedy Center Honors alongside youngbloods Bruce Springsteen and Robert De Niro. Witness a West Coast legend while he still walks the stage.


Game On @ the District

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