Any true Dave Brubeck fan will tell you that the Dave Brubeck Quartet always sounded its best when it performed live. Brubeck himself made the observation that the “audience is the fifth member” of his group, spurring him and the other members of the quartet to greater heights of musical inspiration. As a true fan, I concur. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Brubeck’s groups always sounded particularly great when performing for an audience.
When Dave Brubeck recorded for Fantasy in the early 1950’s, many of his albums were made away from the staid environment of a studio and instead captured in the charged atmosphere of colleges and music halls across the country. One need only to compare the DBQ’s single studio version of ‘Stardust’, recorded by Fantasy in late 1952, to the numerous live versions of this lovely ballad captured by both Fantasy and radio broadcasts from 1951-1956. An example of a live version is a particularly beautiful performance of ‘Stardust’ was recorded live at University of California Berkeley in March of 1954, with Joe Dodge on drums, Bob Bates on bass, Paul Desmond on alto and Brubeck on piano. On this cut, Desmond sounds like he’s playing flute instead of his alto sax, playing chorus after chorus of rapturous music. At times he sounds like a thrush singing a vesper in a woodland. A frequent practice of Paul Desmond was to use Brubeck’s comping as a springboard for his own solo, and he does this marvelously in his first chorus, mirroring Brubeck’s piano line. Brubeck’s solo is a masterpiece, weaving together chords and rhythmic shading in a way that French Impressionist such as Debussy might have played ‘Stardust’. Filled with dynamics and color, this performance of ‘Stardust’ by the Dave Brubeck Quartet is, in this writer’s humble opinion, their most beautiful rendition of this chestnut (although their 1953 performance of the tune at College of the Pacific is a very close second).
A later live performance of the same song at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival finds the group in a more swinging, jazzier groove. The personnel is the same, yet the quiet beauty of the previous version is gone, replaced with a more assertive groove and strutting tempo. Curiously, after Brubeck’s brief piano intro, Desmond flirts with minor tonalities, which Brubeck follows with his chordal shading behind. That frequently used musical device is one that I will have to explore further in another post, but it’s one that the group never again explored on ‘Stardust’, at least on record. From the four bars or so of minor key flirtation on this performance, one can only imagine the possibilities that would’ve been at Desmond’s and Brubeck’s disposal if they had developed it further. Perhaps it was a flash of inspiration from the Newport stage that prompted the minor exploration. Desmond’s solo is more forceful and bluesy than normal as compared to other explorations of the same tune, nudged and driven by the firm support from Bob Bates’ bass line and Joe Dodge’s steady and propulsive drums. His solo concludes with a well-known blues lick, one that in less-experienced hands sounds cliche but in Desmond’s hands sounds like the most logical conclusion to his lyrical statement. Brubeck’s following solo is filled with excitement, building from single lines to thundering, full-bodied chords.
In the nifty and informative liner notes to Brubeck’s 1954 Columbia album ‘At Storyville: 1954’, Brubeck explains that his quartet plays differently in clubs than at concert halls or colleges, saying that the energy is different in an audience of 200 verses an audience of 2,000. “A concert audience of college students isn’t at all like a night club crowd. The youngsters want more excitement, whereas the night club audiences usually consist of older people, with whom you can be more introspective”. This difference is clearly evident in the two examples of ‘Stardust’ above. The college date is much more restrained and measured, hinting of the more intimate setting. In fact, in his marvelous book ‘West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960’, Ted Gioia writes relays how the quartet was downright cramped, with Joe Dodge and his drums up against a wall and Brubeck playing an upright piano in a lecture hall, with students coming and going throughout the performance (p.94). In direct contrast, the Newport Jazz Festival was a huge outdoor event with thousands of jovial, high-spirited jazz fans and spectators sitting (and standing) before a large stage. Considering these circumstances, it’s no wonder that the quartet’s Newport ’55 version was more upbeat and forceful than the more introspective and serene performance captured at UC Berkeley. The audience has always proved to be a catalyst for jazz musicians, and perhaps no other group utilized it more than the Dave Brubeck Quartet.