To my ears the most arresting piece in the performance is "Take the 'A' Train" which, like Billy's "Satin Doll," has never sounded like a Strayhorn composition. In both cases, the chords and their progression are simply too conventional to evoke the more elusive and exotic harmonies that distinguish a Strayhorn tune. "Take the A Train" was the first track on Dave's wildly popular "Jazz Goes to College," the LP that introduced many of us to the Brubeck Quartet, since like Miles' "Kind of Blue" it was one of tens of thousands of copies sent out by the Columbia Record Club to a nation of subscribers. On the present occasion, Dave completely transforms the song into something worthy of the composer of "Blood Count" and "UMMG." Taken at an uncharacteristically fast tempo, "A Train" oscillates between major and minor, occasionally playing with augmented chords that make the normally major key all the more indeterminate--and suggestive of Strayhorn.
Overall, this is one of the most satisfying sessions by this complement of players. Morello fans, especially, are likely to find the percussionist featured more prominently than on any other recording that comes to mind. And although i've read complaints about Paul's horn being slightly off mike, the instrument that suffers the most is Eugene Wright's bass, which is muddy, distant and unfocused in the mix (is it possible the recording was made with a single microphone placed at the rear of the auditorium?) Whatever the case, the music soon overrides any shortfalls in the quality of the audio. But, if anything, the realism is enhanced by the circumstances of this monaural recording, which sounds as though a single premium mic might have been used, one capable of being a stand-in for the audience member's perspective. It's unlikely that any other recording captures the force of Dave's legendary heavy, two-fisted attack (Oscar Peterson used to complain about following Dave into a club: after a Brubeck beating, a single tuning of the piano was never sufficient to bring it back up to speed. (To be fair, Dave's playing on "La Paloma Azul" is sublimely lyrical--and subdued.)
There's no gainsaying the high quality of the playing or the significance of the moment. But there's also no denying that the historical importance of this previously unreleased date is subject to a certain amount of exaggeration. In 1963 the same four musicians had recorded a killer concert in New York City's Carnegie Hall, which is arguably their most electrifying and satisfying recording of all--especially to close jazz followers who, unlike the more casual masses, do not regard the introduction of Desmond's "Take 5" and the studio album "Time Out" (1959) as representing the high-water mark of the music's entire history. Moreover, after the group had disbanded, they would reunite, most notably for the 1976 release, "The 25th Reunion Concert," which carries with it the added drama of the moment--the detached retina suffered by Joe Morello during the making of the record (necessitating that it be a compilation of two concerts) and the heroic performance of Paul Desmond, who was then in the late stages of terminal cancer.
Nevertheless, the present album deserves to occupy a place, at the very least, alongside the aforementioned two concerts. It indeed was the final concert by the four musicians who had, perhaps more than any other group, made the small combo almost as vital to jazz in the minds of the public as big bands were during the late '30s and first half of the '40s. Granted, there were also the "hard bop" groups of Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley, the "classical" jazz of The Modern Jazz Quartet, and the musically influential small ensembles of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. But Brubeck's was the group that reached the broadest cross-section of the American public, with all of the quartet's international travels as well as Dave's thematic studio ideas documented on big-label Columbia Records, prior to release throughout the country by the Columbia Record Club, a mail-order service that serviced tens of thousands of subscribers from its offices in Terre Haute, Indiana.
In diametrically opposed contrast, "Their Last Time Out" contains music that went unnoticed by Columbia Records. Recorded by amateurs in Pittsburgh, the day after Christmas, 1967, the music is not even in stereo. Nevertheless, the "novelty" factor of stereo has worn off sufficiently, and the music is of such undeniably high quality, that there's little doubt that, for the majority of listeners, substance will prevail over audio quality or packaging. This is the commercially-successful Brubeck Quartet at its very best. If it lacks some of the excitement of the two concert recordings mentioned above, it surpasses them in the sheer musicality of the proceedings. On this occasion, the quartet plays "music" rather than the "audience." It has nothing to prove; it would be simply another gig, were it not the last one. But it represents the kind of relaxation and mastery that make for timeless music--playing that is inexhaustible, capable of maintaining its welcome freshness, regardless of how often the listener returns to it.
There's no argument about which was Dave's best group over his singularly long career: it was these four musicians who, if anything, are ironically "underrated" by many contemporary young players, whose roots are far more deeply implanted in the fertile soil of the Parker-Davis-Coltrane tradition than that of Brubeck. In fact, both Desmond and Brubeck are among the most unique musicians in the music's history. Neither legend has spawned any recognizable imitators or proteges to speak of.
I hope it will be taken as no sleight to this group or this recording, but if I were to attempt to "win over" a young musician, or even a former Brubeck detractor (during the '50s there was no small number of musicians who, armed with their numerous Blue Note recordings, heaped relentless disparagement upon, and even animosity towards, Brubeck, Desmond, and numerous other white musicians associated with "West Coast," "cool jazz"), I would look to the recordings preceding the Columbia dates. "Jazz Goes to Oberlin" and "Jazz at the College of the Pacific" continue to impress, especially for the imaginative heat, more than most of the ensuing "smash hit" albums on Columbia. "Jazz Goes to College" would be an exception, another example of playing that's daring, unfailingly inspiring and unpredictable. Yet all of these early recordings have nondescript rhythm sections. The bass player and drummer may not approach the level of musicianship exhibited by Joe Morello and Eugene Wright, but they're unselfish "service musicians," who merely lay down a solid 4/4 and stay out of Brubeck's and Desmond's way. The results speak for themselves, making manifest the place Desmond had earned right alongside Charlie Parker as the other dominating alto voice of his era. Still, it surprises many to hear the radio interview on which Bird compliments Desmond as one of jazz's great innovators, and Paul returns the compliment to Bird, who responds that he was far from finished (sadly, that was not to be the case).
But as for Joe Dodge, Norman Bates, and the other nearly forgetten drummers and bass players who accompanied Brubeck and Desmond on most of their 1950s albums, they could not have served their employers any better, providing invaluable support--for the two front-line players and for those of us who still shake our heads in wonderment at the unprecedented, timeless creativity that characterized these early meetings between Dave and Paul. Listening to Dave in the company of Gerry Mulligan, Bill Smith and a succession of acclaimed jazz players and then directing our attention to Paul in the quiet, intimate surroundings of the Modern Jazz Quartet or in a group replacing piano with guitar, is inescapably a "let-down." But it's also a moment when the listener is apt to become keenly aware of the degree to which Dave and Paul served as catalysts to one another, resulting in some of the most inimitable, exciting music of jazz mid-century. In fact, their music--whether on their first album or the last--is bound to strike many of us as no less freshly minted in the new millennium as it did when we first heard it. As this latest example demonstrates, their music was not so much characterized by an exclusive focus on time signatures and meters as it was--and is--a "timeless" art, equally resistant to classification and obsolescence. Neither Brubeck nor Desmond had any use for "closure"; so, too, the listener is likely to discover this music, though captured during the middle of the 20th century, no less inspiring--and inspiriting--in the second decade of the 21st. In fact, I have little doubt that some of their grandchildren will discover its flame undiminished as we approach the century following the current one.