Brubeck was anything but "love at first sight" for an isolated high-school teen-ager seeking alternatives to Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" in the 1950s. But with each successive listening to Paul's sublime statements on his own blues, "Balcony Rock," and to Brubeck's aggressive rhythmic thunder on "Le Souk," both tunes from Dave's first blockbuster recording for Columbia, Jazz Goes to College, I became increasingly engaged, until I was "hooked," and occasionally even mesmerized. Next, I began to seek out Dave's earlier recordings, primarily on the Fantasy label and from "live" concerts for clearly captive (voluntarily) college audiences. The discovery, above all, of Jazz At Oberlin was like an epiphany. Never had I heard musicians--especially Desmond--play with such fire, imagination, and daring, combining classical interpolations with their own jazz sensibilities within improvised solos that seemed to slip into higher gear with each audible response, or bit of encouragement, from the fully engaged audience.
"Jazz at Oberlin" was the recording that led to a Columbia contract and the album "Jazz Goes to College" as well as a photo of Brubeck on the cover of Time Magazine (the first jazz musician ever to receive such attention) and a national audience that Columbia could count on to support Dave's experiments with meter. The next major event would be the release of the Columbia studio recording, Time Out, which would eventually share with Miles Davis' Columbia masterpiece, Kind of Blue, the reputation of being one of the two "greatest" jazz albums of all time (both are eternally ensconced in Amazon's list of the 10 best-selling jazz albums). Dave Brubeck's non-compromising, undeniably sophisticated music defied the odds of widespread acceptance with a recording of songs in "odd" meters, among them one particular track that has become arguably the best-known, most popular "jazz standard" of all time: Paul Desmond's "Take Five".
But now for the "problems" with this box set: 1. Many listeners no doubt already have a copy of "Time Out"; 2. "Time Out," while qualifying as a Brubeck "hit," is, in fact, a rather arid, formulaic, stiffly played "studio" recording, as practically any successive "live" recording of "Take Five" would show. To a great extent, Brubeck had become a victim of his own success, and at Columbia's behest, he began to issue a series of mostly studio albums, each based on a different theme (e.g. "Dave Digs Disney") or location (e.g. "In Japan," "In Eurasia," "At the Brandenburg Gate," etc.); 3. The "classic" albums in this set are, for the most part, all studio albums, including "Time Out" and the series of recordings it fostered. There is, to be sure, good music to be heard on each of the albums, but as Brubeck himself has frequently insisted in interviews, the studio albums pale alongside the quartet's live concert recordings.
What you will hear in this set, and for that matter in an album like "Time Out," is solid Brubeck and Desmond, along with strong support from drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright, but the playing has an overly polished and rehearsed quality, the tracks are aimed at an optimal duration for radio play, the group is doing its best to be "tight" and to avoid making mistakes. Unfortunately, that's not "top-shelf" Brubeck music. Nor is it representative of the music that led to Brubeck's becoming a national "phenomenon."
Instead of this set (recordings in my comprehensive Brubeck collection that I rarely listen to) a listener would be better advised to pick up the two seminal concert recordings referred to above. From there go to the album rightly acclaimed as the best recording by Brubeck's best group (Desmond, Morello, Wright): At Carnegie Hall. Listening to this "Take Five" may come as a bit of a shock and revelation. No longer are the musicians "reined in" by strange meters or time limits or the requirement of executing with great care. Suddenly, all four musicians have become "free." The 5/4 time signature has, unlike the forced and deliberative playing on "Time Out," become second-nature to them. All four musicians are interacting within the irresistible flow, or time-stream, of the music, taking chances and even huge risks as the listener shares with them a journey that is at once "creation in the moment" and the adventure of a lifetime. This is "real jazz," a high-water mark in the history of this indigenous art form. It's music played with spontaneity, daring, and passion--creative improvisation of a high order (and don't let any "hip" elitist tell you that Brubeck doesn't "swing"--again and again, Brubeck's music demonstrates that there's more than "one" way to swing).
The next step might be to go to the recently released final concert by the quartet before Brubeck disbanded the group to move on to other projects: Their Last Time Out. The music is almost as exciting as the Carnegie Hall concert while understandably exhibiting even greater freedom. The Brubeck-Desmond quartet would remain inactive for the next 9 years until in 1975 they would perform a memorable (and bittersweet) reunion concert that deserves comparison with the previous Carnegie Hall concert from 1963. Paul was in the advanced stages of the cancer that would soon take his life, and Joe Morello was suffering from a detached retina that would eventually lead to blindness. But the music is of such a high quality that a listener wouldn't suspect the group had missed a single night let alone the whole prior 9 years: 25th Anniversary Reunion.
With these 5 "landmark" concert albums, each a significant "live" event, you will have a much better idea of what Dave Brubeck and, for that matter, jazz itself is all about. The excitement of great jazz improvisation has rarely been captured in such an accessible, engaging, almost "palpable" manner. Despite the polytonality, the odd meters, the radically different styles of the dramatic Brubeck and the lyrical Desmond, the listener can scarcely help but become a participant in the action of supreme artists creating in the moment and playing at the furthest reaches of their potential. After these recordings, the listener will have a better perspective from which to judge the vast discographies of both musicians, including Paul's piano-less recordings and Dave's large-scale compositions based on themes ranging from the quest for world peace to the role of jazz in that search. Inevitably, listeners come back to the same realization: Dave never sounded better than when he was playing Paul, and Paul never sounded better than when he was playing with Dave. The only "condition" that might be added is that this mutual dependence, or synergy, was never more apparent than when the two were playing together "naked," which is to say, in concert before a "live" audience.