I have had a day to think about what I wanted to say about the death of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck yesterday at the age of 91. I am now going to attempt to see what I can say, and if it makes any sense to anyone but me.
I grew up playing piano. The desire was for me to become one of those irritating classically trained piano nerds who play Rachmaninoff with little effort. Problem was I have these ridiculously small, square hands with teeny little fingers that cannot reach a full octave on the keyboard, so while I have a musical ear and the passion of a music geek, I lacked the ability to play with much skill beyond a certain level. I played a lot of Elton John, Billy Joel, and Carole King. But I listened to jazz to soothe my nerdy soul. Peterson, Tatum, and Brubeck were my heroes. I adored Brubeck’s legendary 1959 jazz classic Time Out, the controversial album that subverted time signatures to refresh jazz, much to purists chagrin. I was fascinated with the experimental nature of the album, its roots in swing but avoiding the jazz tropes, the subtlety of the piano on a song like “Take Five”…
Ah, “Take Five”. The best known jazz piece this side of “Take The ‘A’ Train”. It’s 5/4 time signature and loping melody, magnificent alto sax, light snare, steady bass… Few pop songs are as memorable as this slice of jazz heaven. Strong melody always rules in music, and “Take Five” had it. It remains Brubeck’s signature piece, wholly memorable and always welcomed.
But beyond “Take Five” was other moments of genius. My favourite Brubeck piece remains Time Out‘s opener, “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, with its strong karsilama rhythm Brubeck discovered while touring Turkey. As the song trips back and forth between the complex and difficult 9/8 time signature back to our standard 4/4 blues, Brubeck engages in quoting the memorable opening bars while allowing his musicians freedom to solo in a comfortable measure. Brubeck would never tire of trying to turn jazz on its head. He would release several albums through the 1960s that would also take this route.
Brubeck, though, wasn’t afraid of the Great American Song Book. Brubeck’s take on the familiar “Take The ‘A’ Train” equals the Duke’s definitive version. Aided by his longtime alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, it jumps and swings just like we want jazz to do.
In my Sunday morning jazz reveries, Brubeck in any form is favoured over even my beloved Coltrane. There is a relaxed air about Brubeck. He floats above jazz, a heaven-sent answer to a prayer from jazz lovers to aid in expanding their art form beyond what it was becoming. 1959 was a seminal year for the genre, and Brubeck was an epicentre to the changes happening. You have to admire him for his sheer tenacity, as well as his artistry.
Brubeck was a generous musician with his time and experience. He was revered by jazz and pop musicians alike, and the love shown in the past twenty-four hours from young and old is heartwarming.
Today would have been Brubeck’s 92 birthday. Happy birthday, sir, and Godspeed.