Let’s raise a glass to Dave Brubeck who died on 5 December, the day before his 92nd birthday. Brubeck was the first serious jazz musician to register on my radar as a teenager whose musical horizons in the early sixties were shaped by the hit parade and Radio Luxembourg. It was ‘Take Five’ that broke through, of course – a top ten hit in 1960 largely because of its catchy and ineffably cool saxophone melody played by Paul Desmond, and its odd clunky, jolting drum solo. Later, we learned how the title derived from the tune’s use of the unusual 5/4 time.
What’s curious looking back, is that after nearly two decades saturated in pop and rock, when I finally discovered jazz (via Weather Report and Miles’ Bitches Brew) it was only to find that Brubeck was regarded by jazz cognoscenti as distinctly uncool. As John Fordham put it in his Guardian obituary:
Brubeck was on the wrong side of the purists almost as soon as his discs started to become hits – for what were seen by some as three betrayals. First, and maybe worst, he made money, which was a form of notoriety usually regarded as a sell-out by hardline hipsters. Second, his conspicuously complex tempos paraded cleverness and a fondness for European classical devices at a time when black American jazz was dumping much of its formal baggage, and fiery, impassioned and unpredictable improvisers such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane were on the rise. Third, he was portrayed by the cognoscenti as wasting the talents of a truly great improviser in Desmond, his lyrical and delicate alto saxophonist.
So I never listened to Brubeck in the 1970s, and it was only in the 1990s that I really came to appreciate the albums from which the hit singles of the early sixties had been lifted – Time Out (the first jazz album to sell a million copies from which came ‘Time Out’ and ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’), and Time Further Out (‘It’s a Raggy Waltz’).
Both of those are fine albums, but these days, it’s Jazz Impressions of Japan that is my favourite Brubeck album. It sounds timeless. This is what Allmusic says about it:
These eight tracks, all based on a tour of Japan the year before, were, in a sense, Brubeck fulfilling a dictum from his teacher, the French composer Darius Milhaud, who exhorted him to “travel the world and keep your ears open.” The sketches Brubeck and Desmond created all invoke the East, particularly the folk melodies of Japan directly, while still managing to use the Debussian impressionistic approach to jazz that kept them riding the charts and creating a body of music that, while playing into the exotica craze of the moment, was still jazz composed and played with integrity. The gorgeous modal blues that uses Eastern scale whole tones with Western harmonic notions – chromatically – that comprise the melody and solo frameworks for Desmond in ‘Fujiyama’ are a beautiful contrast to the relatively straight-ahead ballad style featured on ‘Zen Is When’, with its 4/4 time sling rhythm and simple melody — extrapolated by Brubeck in purely Japanese whole tone scale on the harmony. Also, the shimmer and whisper of ‘The City Is Crying’, where Desmond’s solo is one of the most beautiful of his career, using arpeggios as half tones to reach down into the middle of his horn’s register and play harmonically a counterpoint that is as painterly as it is poignant. On “Osaka Blues,” Brubeck once again reaches for an oriental scale to play a modal blues à la Miles Davis with Wynton Kelly; Desmond responds by playing straight post-bop Bluesology with even a squeak or two in his solo. In all, Jazz Impressions of Japan is one of the great forgotten Brubeck records. Its sweetness is tempered with musical adventure and the improvisational experience only a band that had been together 13 years could provide. It’s truly wonderful.
To quote John Fordham again in his Guardian obituary:
Brubeck’s real achievement was to blend European compositional ideas, very demanding rhythmic structures, jazz song-forms and improvisation in expressive and accessible ways.
An appreciation in the New York Times notes:
Genial as Mr. Brubeck could seem, he had strong convictions. In the 1950s he had to stand up to college deans who asked him not to perform with a racially mixed band (his bassist, Gene Wright, was black). He also refused to tour in South Africa in 1958 when asked to sign a contract stipulating that his band would be all white. With his wife as lyricist, he wrote “The Real Ambassadors,” a jazz musical that dealt with race relations. With a cast that included Louis Armstrong, it was released on LP in 1962 but staged only once, at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival. [...]
Mr. Brubeck once explained succinctly what jazz meant to him. “One of the reasons I believe in jazz,” he said, “is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.”
- His music gave jazz new pop: New York Times appreciation