When jazz pianist, bandleader, and composer Dave Brubeck left us in December a day before turning ninety-two, his life was celebrated by news outlets all over the world. For many, he was remembered for the performances and recordings of his classic quartet, which toured almost uninterrupted from 1958 to 1968. Brubeck formed the group with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond in 1951, but they truly came into their own on tour with flashy drummer Joe Morello and Detroit bassist Eugene Wright. The quartet was an international success, and their recordings for Columbia were among the most popular jazz albums of their time.
Brubeck’s renown was long in coming, however. He began piano studies early with his mother. After serving in the army he enrolled in college to study with the famed classical composer Darius Milhaud and formed his first octet which explored connections between classical music and jazz. He performed on the West Coast with a trio, which eventually morphed into the quartet with Desmond. The two had a unique relationship: they looked very much like one another, but the pianist was often hard-hitting and brash, while the saxophonist remained lyrical, understated, airy, and rhythmically subtle. Bassist Wright shared with Brubeck ways of playing that had roots in the pre-modern jazz era, while the drummer and saxophonist seemed more modern.
All of this somehow came together under Brubeck’s leadership. At first the repertoire consisted almost exclusively of standards, but soon the leader began to include his compositions, which ultimately became the quartet’s calling cards. Milhaud’s lessons and admonitions bore fruit, and Brubeck’s writing avoided jazz commonplaces and sometimes paid homage to his teacher’s polytonal techniques. Some of the best known of these compositions were “The Duke,” “In Your Own Sweet Way,” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” probably the first jazz pieces in 9/8 time, and, of course, the quartet’s most recognizable anthem, “Take Five,” written by Desmond and originally a feature for Morello’s virtuoso drumming. But there were many others, and Brubeck’s interest in composition grew as he wrote pieces for the ballet and musical theater, leading finally to the breakup of the quartet in 1968; Brubeck wanted to get off the road, spend more time with family, and to dedicate more time to writing music.
Brubeck will always be best remembered for the classic quartet, but he continued to perform and compose for over half a century, with new trios and quartets and with symphony orchestras. I have always liked the recordings that featured baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, with whom the pianist seemed to have a special rapport, including two albums that brought Desmond back into the picture. Brubeck had made his first recording as a solo pianist at the age of twenty-two, and he topped off his career with a lovely series of solo piano albums, ending with the 2007 Indian Summer, an unhurried, wistful masterpiece.
Pianist, composer, and educator Ellen Rowe will offer her own musical perspectives on the art of Dave Brubeck in the next installment of her masterful “All About the Trio” series at the Kerrytown Concert House on March 17.