Brubeck’s Zurich Set Surprises and Delights

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ZURICH 1964 / BRUBECK-DESMOND: Audrey. BRUBECK: Cable Car. Koto Song. Thank You. COOTS-GILLESPIE: You Go to My Head. DESMOND: Take Five. BURKE-JOHNSTON: Pennies From Heaven. MORELLO: Shimwa / Dave Brubeck Quartet: Paul Desmond, a-sax; Brubeck, pn; Eugene Wright, bs; Joe Morello, dm. / TCB 02422 (live: Zurich, September 28, 1964)

Fifties and Sixties jazz has been undergoing a sort of Renaissance lately as numerous reissues and new concerts by Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Svend Asmussen and Brubeck have come to light. I can’t always keep up with them all because some of the labels involved don’t supply downloads for review, but I’ve been fortunate enough with several of them, and am always happy to review anything by the Brubeck Quartet.

I was nine years old when Take Five became a hit record, and from that day to this have been greatly enamored with the quartet as a whole but especially the interaction between Paul Desmond’s alto sax and Brubeck’s piano, and to this day I don’t think that a majority of their fans really understand why their collaboration was so successful. It was as much a matter of blending timbres as it was of contrasting styles. Brubeck played, for a white musician, an unusually rich, chunky, deep-in-the-keys sort of piano. It was a sound much closer to black pianists with a deep blues base like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Ramsey Lewis than to those pianists raised more on a classical aesthetic, and this includes both white musicians like Tristano and Evans and black ones like Powell and Teddy Wilson. This is unusual in light of the fact that Brubeck did come from a classical background, and one that was part of the French school (Darius Milhaud) to boot. But somewhere around 1950 or so, Brubeck became enamored of the blues-drenched playing of black pianists, and his chunky chords were a hallmark of his style.

Desmond, on the other hand, was one of those alto saxists like Lee Konitz who played his instrument with a light, somewhat “reedy” tone. One of my friends, the late trad-jazz clarinetist Frank Powers, once told me that the first time he heard Desmond he thought he was playing a clarinet. When he was told it was an alto, his comment was, “That’s one goddamned hard reed!” And it was. Desmond liked to refer to his tone as a “dry martini,” despite the fact that he himself drank Dewar’s scotch and not martinis. And somehow or other, that combination of his dry alto tone and Brubeck’s rich, chunky piano blended perfectly. Desmond’s contract specified that when he recorded on his own he was not to use a piano so that the recording could not be confused with his work with Brubeck, so he usually used guitars, but the thin sound of the usual electric jazz guitar didn’t really contrast with his tone, it sounded too much like it.

Yet all of the above may seem moot when one listens to the delicate tracery of Brubeck’s piano introduction to Audrey. As the liner notes point out, this may be the quartet’s best performance of this not-so-often-performed tune, casting a hypnotic spell over the listener as it goes along. Regarding the quartet’s rhythm section, I always loved Joe Morello on drums (and he was the only member of the quartet I saw in person, in 1971) but never really felt that any of their bassists did much more than offer good support. This isn’t a knock on Eugene Wright, who was an excellent bassist, but it’s also not a knock on Norman Bates or any of Brubeck’s other bass players. The bass really had more of a “grounding” function within the quartet. As the performance continues and Dave plays his own solo, the hard attack and chunky blues style comes more into play, and you begin to understand what I’m talking about. Eventually Brubeck’s solo becomes a mere sequence of syncopated block chords, repeated in the same position and sequence. After a single-note break, the chord positions shift and so does the rhythm, now playing against the bass and drums rather than with them. Wright takes a nice solo, reaffirming my assertion that he was a nice bassist but not a terribly important cog in the machine. At one point he plays a quote from When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on his Tuba. Desmond’s following solo is simply exquisite.

Cable Car sounds like it’s in 6/4, but without seeing the score I’m not 100% positive. No matter, though: this is Brubeck’s tune, and he tears it up on piano in a sort of Meade Lux Lewis kind of way, shifting the rhythm so much that by his second chorus, if you haven’t followed what he was doing from the start, you’de be lost. Just for laughs, he later throws in a quote from Jack Benny’s theme song, Love in Bloom. It was that kind of concert: everyone and everything was relaxed and a good time was being had by all.

You Go To My Head is another fine example of the kind of communication that Dave and Paul had with each other. A few light chords from Brubeck, and Desmond falls right in with an epigrammatic delineation of the melody. Improvising right from the start, the theme is suggested but never quite obvious. This version of Take Five, like so many of his live performances of it, is considerably quicker in tempo than the studio recording and thus loses some of its hypnotic quality (especially—and I hate to say this—when it was issued in its original “360 Sound” mastering, with just enough reverb added to make it sound like the bass and drums were playing in a deep cavern), but what it loses in atmosphere it makes up for in invention, particularly from Desmond once he really gets rolling. Interestingly, at this quicker tempo it almost sounds as if Wright and Morello are subtly shifting the rhythm to add an extra grace note per bar. Brubeck’s own solo is fascinating, starting out in a more classical vein with rolling triplets. Morello’s solo is one of his gems, reminding me of the one time I saw him in person. I still think that he and Elvin Jones were the most creative jazz drummers I ever saw, although Buddy Rich certainly had his own spectacular qualities.

Koto Blues is one of Brubeck’s most unusual pieces, the harmonies based on the open intervals of that instrument’s strings. This one is largely Brubeck’s show on piano. One of the concert’s highlights is surely Pennies From Heaven, an old song that modern pianists have had fun playing with, from Lennie Tristano to Clare Fischer. Brubeck’s version kicks off at a brisk tempo, and shortly after we hear the original tune it scarcely appears again. Both Desmond and the leader turn their considerable talents to deconstructing it and putting it back together, but never to a point where they use atonality or any outside chord changes. Morello’s Shimwa appears to be a modal tune (no key changes) in a quick 3 tempo built around a few little melodic cells, which Brubeck plays quite well.

Thank You is the perfect closer, jaunty and relaxed at the same time. This one, too, is mostly Dave on the piano. Towards the end the rest of the quartet drops out and he plays a surprisingly complex, rhapsodic sort of cadenza, both musically astute and tongue-in-cheek at the same time.

An interesting note about this release: although it claims its origin as a concert, it is in fact a Swiss radio broadcast that has been around for years (in far inferior sound) as a broadcast from September 28, 1963. The biggest difference is the sound quality. The “pirate” version sounds pinched and cramped; this one sounds like an early digital recording.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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