A legend, still challenged: Four decades on, David Brubeck manages to bring magic, variety to the stage

Nov 6, 2007 at 5:44 pm

Looking back at my virtually lifelong interest in jazz, it’s hard to believe I was only 10 years old when the catchy melody of “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet entered the Top 40 charts and into my consciousness.

Although the classic album from which it was taken, Time Out, had been recorded and released in 1959, the single that was to be such an unexpected hit was not released until 1961. By comparison, some of the other hits that year were “Baby It’s You” and “Dedicated to the One I Love” by the Shirelles, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens and “Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K. Doe. Jazz was nonexistent on pop radio then.

Of course, I was not alone. For generations, many music fans have become jazz fans through the work of Dave Brubeck. He made a major impact during the 1950s and early 1960s by performing on college campuses, rather than confining himself to the jazz clubs. When “Take Five” (penned by his saxophonist Paul Desmond) broke into the Top 40, it was not only unusual because it was jazz, but also because it was written in 5/4 time.

For non-musicians, if you think of a waltz as 3/4 (cycles of 1-2-3, 1-2-3), and most rock and pop as 4/4 (1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4), 5/4 is a cycle of (in this case) 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2. In the decades since, it has become a fixture of Brubeck concerts, yet in the true tradition of jazz, the improvisations and interpretations differ from night to night, keeping the song fresh for both the players and the audience.  

Fast forward to April 1980. It’s my first trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. My well-planned concert itinerary is supplemented by a spur-of the-moment decision to buy a ticket for the Count Basie Orchestra and the Dave Brubeck Quartet, after hearing mini-sets by them at the dedication of Louis Armstrong Park. Since then, I have had the privilege of seeing Brubeck a few more times, most recently here in Louisville in 2003, and in New Orleans at the 2004 Jazz and Heritage Festival.

At the 2003 concert here, Brubeck and his quartet played a matinee at the University of Louisville on a Sunday and a Monday night concert at the Brown. He was joined by drummer Randy Jones, saxophonist and flutist Bobby Militello and bassist Michael Moore. Jones and Militello had been part of Brubeck’s group for a decade by then, and “newcomer” Moore was a perfect fit.

Over the course of these two two-hour performances, Brubeck and Co. repeated only one song, “Take Five,” but so different were the two versions that it was almost like hearing two different ensembles playing the song. For an artist so well-known for his experiments in “odd” meters, he engaged the crowd in classics from the jazz repertoire, reaching all the way back to W.C. Handy’s immortal “Saint Louis Blues,” and with recent Brubeck originals such as the highly syncopated second-line New Orleans strut of “Crescent City Stomp.”  

When Brubeck performs at the historic Memorial Auditorium on Saturday, he will be three weeks shy of his 87th birthday. However, he is most definitely not one to rest on his laurels. After lengthy stints recording for the Fantasy, Columbia and Concord record labels, among others, Brubeck now records for Telarc. Earlier this year, he released a relatively rare solo album, Indian Summer. As the title implies, Brubeck seems to wax elegiac as he beautifully plays standards like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” and originals including “Autumn in Our Town” and “Thank You.”

For such a renowned artist, Brubeck is not particularly well represented on video. Fortunately, the “Jazz Icons” series has recently released a second round of live performances shot in Europe in the 1960s by such notable performers as John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Joining this august company is Dave Brubeck’s DVD “Live in ’64 & ’66,” which features the classic quartet that recorded Time Out, namely Brubeck with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene “Senator” Wright and drummer Joe Morello, at the height of their post-“Take Five” popularity, in Belgium in 1964 and Germany two years later.

To be able to watch this group at the peak of their collective powers, in well-shot action, is amazing. “Saint Louis Blues” and Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” are among the standards, while radically different interpretations of Brubeck’s Japanese-influenced “Koto Song” and Desmond’s “Take Five” appear on both dates.  

Brubeck’s Saturday-night concert actually represents a change in U of L’s 15-year-old “Jazz Week” program. Until now, Jazz Week took place in February and highlighted world-class performers like Brubeck, local and regional talent and student ensembles. It is being revamped to include the Brubeck concert now, with further events booked in January and April.

“One could not ask for a more significant figure to begin our expanded program than Dave Brubeck,” said professor Michael A. Tracy, director of the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program, and added that Brubeck’s shows during 2003’s Jazz Week sold out.

“We are expecting another night to remember from Dave. You don’t want to miss seeing and hearing this living legend of American music.”

After all this time, the man himself isn’t tired of his material. This was evident in November 1996, in a set of updated liner notes for the CD reissue of Time Out.

“Audiences still want to hear the Dave Brubeck Quartet perform these now ‘classic’ songs,” he wrote. “And do you know something? After almost 40 years, I still like to play them, and they are still a challenge.”
Brubeck’s track record speaks for itself. Whether you are a long-time fan or curious to begin to discover what makes him so special, this is a golden opportunity to see a true legend in intimate surroundings.

Dave Brubeck Quartet
Saturday, Nov. 10
Louisville Memorial Auditorium
970 S. Fourth St.
$20-$75; 8 p.m.