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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Time Away

From the Crypt Dept.: Dave Brubeck died yesterday. In his honor (or is it in mine? Is the ego ever convincingly subdued?), here’s a piece I wrote after interviewing him in 1989.


BRUBECK ON CAMPUS is the title of one of Dave Brubeck’s popular jazz recordings from his years with Columbia records, signifying the renown in which student populations held his playing. It’s not quite the same today, and Brubeck, who will perform tomorrow (Friday) at 8 PM at the Troy Music Hall, worries about the musical vocabulary of younger audiences.

Illustration by Boris Artzybasheff
He’s fond of quoting tunes within tunes, and on his most recent recording, Moscow Night, he interpolates a quote from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony into Take Five. Which pleased both his musicians and his audience. But, as he explained in a recent phone interview from his Connecticut home, “The trouble I have now is that I’ll play a quote that is so obvious to me, but only the band will get it because the audience doesn’t have that vocabulary. Just like I don’t have a rock vocabulary.

“But I’m doing it all the time and it becomes an inside joke rather than an outside – to the  audience – joke.”

Brubeck recently underwent heart bypass surgery, but that only postponed his Troy appearance. He’s back on the road with a full schedule of touring ahead.

“The first night I went back to play after my surgery it was a big emotional experience for the audience and me and the band. We were playing with the Norwalk Symphony and I was in the middle of a solo. I had reached a point where I play a certain phrase that cues the conductor to bring the orchestra back in. They’d be coming in on the last eight bars of Take the ‘A’ Train. But he was off the podium and I knew he couldn’t get up there in time. I was playing real hard and everything was going well, but I didn’t feel like I could go another chorus. But I had to – and I played Zing! went the Strings of My Heart, which broke up the conductor. But the audience didn’t get it.

“We did the concert again the next night, so at the same place I played Button Up Your Overcoat, which has the phrase ‘. . . take good care of yourself, you belong to me,’ and the audience did laugh. So once in a while if it isn’t too remote they get it.”

In the 1950s he became known for a lean, brisk jazz style that took off in unusual time signatures, but long before that Brubeck was cultivating a musical identity that resists easy categorization.

Friday’s performance puts him back in the setting for which he’s best known: the jazz quartet. And this tour reunites him with bassist Jack Six, who was part of one of the earlier quartet configurations, replacing his Brubeck’s son, Chris, who has left to pursue projects of his own.

His other sons, Danny and Darius, also have achieved musical renown, and Brubeck often collaborates with his wife, Iola, on his large-scale sacred works. Which reflects the circumstances of Brubeck’s own upbringing.

Born in Concord, California, home to the recording label of the same name for which he now records, Brubeck grew up with his musically talented brothers, Henry and Howard, on a farm near Oakland, where he abandoned a proposed veterinary career to seek out Darius Milhaud for musical study. Ironically, it was the renowned French composer who impressed upon Brubeck the need for an American identity rooted in jazz.

“In 1946, he told me that the two greatest American composers were George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. So that kind of theory has been around a long time for me, and it was great to hear Milhaud say that when I was a young man. He came right out in class and said, ‘If you’re going to write American music and you don’t use the jazz idiom, you won’t be writing American music.’”

The wisdom of which has been proven by the success of jazz-aware composers during this century. “The guys that have succeeded are Ives, who used a lot of American music, including jazz and folk music and his experience with his father’s band music. And Copland, certainly, and Bernstein and Gershwin are the people you keep hearing, and they’re the ones who were influenced by jazz.”

These days, Brubeck divides his time among work with ballet companies – he just finished performances in Montreal with the Murray Louis Dance Company – orchestral performances, choral groups, and the jazz quartet. “Richard Westenberg is conducting my Mass at Rutgers University soon, and a few months from now he wants to conduct the same program at Lincoln Center, where he’s already performed my work.

“Choral conductors right across the country are doing my music. This has been a big part of my life, at least twenty-five percent, through the years. Ballet is twenty-five percent and the other fifty percent would be with symphony orchestras, festivals, and the quartet.”

Brubeck’s current quartet also includes drummer Randy Jones and clarinetist Bill Smith, an innovator in electronically manipulating reed sounds. “We’re going to try to keep the concert pretty acoustic,” says Brubeck, “because I’ve played in that hall before and I remember that it’s very live. So we’ll probably be more acoustic than usual.”

Tickets are priced at $15 and $10 and are available at the box office and at CBO outlets.

Metroland Magazine, 27 April 1989

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