Brubeck’s is a name that needs little introduction, given the fact that his 1959 jukebox hit Take Five was the jazz tune that won the heart of many a pop-picker. But the pianist possibly needs a certain reappraisal.
The benign, college lecturer demeanour may reinforce the impression of inoffensiveness of Brubeck’s work, but it would be a mistake to dismiss him as lightweight, and this double CD anthology, drawing mostly on material from his classic 60s quartet and a string of heavyweight collaborations (Armstrong, Mulligan, McRae), makes the point forcefully. In fact, that quartet – Brubeck was joined by drums and bass team Joe Morello and Eugene Wright and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond – had a cohesion and attention to detail that served the leader’s lyricism well. In the mid-50s, Brubeck was developing a post-bop sound that was less bustling and busy than that of Bud Powell and less brawny and bassy than Thelonious Monk, but he was nonetheless rooted in swing. Using uncommon time signatures such as 5/4 and 9/4, he contrived to make his songs move in a tangential, almost whimsical way, but they charmed rather than disarmed – and this is the smart bit – because of the delicacy of the playing.
Brubeck’s music is effervescent. It wafts. It swirls. Desmond, in particular, was like warm air flowing over the stream of the rhythm section, his tone pinched to achieve a soprano-like purity that simply emphasized the breezy character of the music. At no time does the band play loud or wild, even on a rollicking piece, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t play decisively. The 50s saw a divide open up between the ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ schools in jazz, with the central tenet of the former being an incendiary, bluesy energy and the latter leaning to softer, classically inflected phrases. But the two aesthetics were never mutually exclusive and, to a certain extent, Brubeck bridged the putative gap. Shame though that the ‘newest’ material included here was cut in 1973. The question of what happened to Brubeck in the 80s and beyond thus remains unanswered.
--Kevin Le Gendre
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