Jazz Impressions of Japan // Dave Brubeck (Columbia CS 2212)

Here at Raggy Waltz, we’re celebrating the birthday of Dave Brubeck all month long by profiling different albums that I think are just as great or better than Brubeck’s much-acclaimed ‘Time Out’ album.  We know about that one, so let’s hear about the other ones.  Last week I talked about another time-themed album of Brubeck’s.  This week, I decided to profile one of my top-five favorite Brubeck albums.  It’s also an example of another form of jazz that Brubeck championed:  world music.  ¡Para la musica!


The Music

The Tune:  “The City Is Crying”

Recorded:  17 June, 1964 in New York City, NY

Personnel:

  • Dave Brubeck-  Piano
  • Paul Desmond-  Alto Sax
  • Eugene Wright-  Bass
  • Joe Morello-  Drums

As a whole, the first word that comes to me when describing this album is “beautiful”.  From the music to the solos to the album cover, the entire aesthetic of this album is one of reverential beauty.  The album consists of compositions written almost entirely by Brubeck himself, most of them written as “personal impressions” from their tour of Japan in the spring of 1964.  Mr. Brubeck explained further that “[t]he music we have prepared tries to convey these minute but lasting impressions, somewhat in the manner of classical haiku, wherein the poet expects the reader to feel the scene himself as an experience.”

The music succeeds.  Quite literally, these are jazz impressions of Japan.  Sure there are hints of Japanese music styles in the music, from the use of Japanese scales and percussion instruments (woodblocks and gongs, etc.) to Japanese melodies.  But this is a jazz album through and through, and an honest one at that.  Other than the aforementioned percussion instruments, Dave Brubeck and his group stick to their own instruments; there’s no Japanese flute or koto here. The Brubeck Quartet adapts their sound and skill to fit the Japanese music.  Desmond’s alto sax is perfectly suited for this, particularly on the ballads.  

As stated earlier, nearly all the tunes were written by Brubeck from his notes of his experiences while in Japan.  These experiences ranged from harrowing ride through rush hour traffic in Tokyo to quiet Japanese gardens to the rising sun over the city.  The most famous tune to come from this album and the tune that tends to get the most ink whenever this album is mentioned is “Koto Song”.  Written by Brubeck after hearing a koto in…Kyoto.  He was taken with the instrument and wrote this tune as a kind of tribute to it.  As Brubeck notes in the liners, “Koto Song” is the most overtly Japanese performance on the album.  It’s also firmly American, too, as it’s a blues.  Listening to the performance on the album, you wouldn’t know it.  I sure didn’t realize it until I heard the numerous live examples of this tune Brubeck performed in the 1960’s.  It’s a beautiful piece of music and a favorite of both Brubeck’s and Desmond’s.  

However.

While “Koto Song” may be the most popular song on the album, it is not the best song on the album.  That honor goes to a tune buried on the second side of the record named “The City Is Crying”.  In my humble opinion, this tune and performance is the crown jewel of the entire album and the track that most successfully imparts a jazz impression of Japan.  For Brubeck, it was the writing of this tune that stood out to him the most.  As he explained in the liner notes and again in 2000 when the album was reissued on CD, he wrote the tune in response to a thunderstorm that woke him up from a nap in Kyoto.  

“I was awakened by a sudden clap of thunder.  Watching the rain drench the streets below, I thought “The city is crying”, and the words became a melody of another musical impression.”

Indeed, this tune is the most evocative of all the tracks.  Brubeck’s spare piano opens the track, spelling out “the city is crying” right out the gate.  To emphasize the feeling of a spring thunderstorm, Morello uses brushes to create the shimmering effect of rain on the cymbals while someone else (Desmond?) mimics the thunder by using a drum roll on the tympani.  These aural depictions, taken with Wright’s bowed bass and Brubeck’s delicate piano, paint a beautifully serene picture of a rainy evening.  Played out of time, Brubeck and Wright establish the melody and underlying harmonies at a leisurely pace.  It’s when Desmond sails in with his lyrical solo that the rest of the group snaps into a brisk but comfortably swinging jazz performance.  Desmond plays two choruses of economically ethereal sax with more than a hint of melancholy before handing it to Brubeck, who copies his closing phrase and uses it to launch his own solo.  Wright, who up to this point had been walking the bass, switches to a more strutting 2-the-bar bass figure.  Initially, Brubeck swings lightly and in keeping with the more jazzy mood Desmond had just established.  Moving into his second chorus, however, things change.  Morello’s brushes drop out altogether, while Wright plays a few more notes before he too leaves the scene.  Brubeck reverts to a more ad lib, orchestral style of playing and slips into a more reflective, quiet mood.  Soon enough, the rain returns, and Brubeck closes the tune with the able assistance of Wright’s arco bass.  

Simply put, this is moving music.  Getting closer to Brubeck’s intentions, this is descriptive music.  These are jazz impressions of Japan.  

This was one of the last in a series of popular ‘jazz impressions’ albums that Brubeck made.  The first was made in 1956 and the last was released in 1965.  I believe that this effort was the most successful.  Incidentally, so popular were these ‘jazz impressions’ albums that Brubeck’s old record label, Fantasy, took up the 
‘jazz impressions of’ theme for one of their recording artists, Vince Guaraldi.

In terms of notoriety, this album is all but forgotten compared to ‘Time Out’.  Yet, what this album lacks in popularity it gains in sheer musicality and compositional prowess.  The music on the album was trail-blazing for its time.  While numerous jazz groups were incorporating ‘Eastern’ elements into their music or even recording Japanese-themed albums (Horace Silver and Cal Tjader for example), this is a rare instance where traditional Japanese music is synthesized with American jazz music to create a triumphant product that simultaneously retains both the Japanese and jazz flavors.  It’s gestalt!


The Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating:  A

With a themed album, one can expect the art department of a record label to go nuts and come up with something corny.  Luckily, by the 1960’s, most jazz record labels had hip art departments who could steer clear of such cringe-inducing artwork.  Columbia Records, however, was not a jazz record label.  At all.  Yet, the album cover succeeds.  Instead of a cheesy cover with Brubeck or a Geisha girl or all the above, we get a rather stunning piece of authentic Japanese art.  Who is the artist responsible for the art?  The artist doesn’t get a credit anywhere on the album or the liner notes, and extensive research (I went to the THIRD page on Google) turned up nothing.  What a shame.  


The Back

Dave Brubeck writes effective and informative liner notes detailing the making of the music.  The inclusion of a haiki at the end of each of Brubeck’s statements reinforce the Japanese theme of the album.  Interestingly, ‘Time Out’ isn’t listed among the albums one might enjoy, which was still a hit in 1964.  His older albums from 1954 and 1958, however, are included.  

Another intriguing point of mystery for hardcore record collectors is the bold ‘A’ at the bottom right corner.  What does it mean?  London Jazz Collector postulated that it represented a code by which one could figure out where in the United States their Columbia album was printed.  Which would make sense, but in most of those cases, there were numbers used.  I’ll have to scour my Columbia records, but I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a letter used instead of a number.  Hmmm…


The Vinyl

Pressed on thick vinyl, these deep red 2-eye labels with the black stereo and arrows font was typical up through 1964.  Around 1965, Columbia began to switch over from black font to white font.  Personally, I like the black lettering better.  Columbia’s vintage stereo was absolutely delicious when executed right.  My last post demonstrated what Columbia’s stereo could sound like when in, um, less capable hands.  Lucky for Brubeck, it sounds like Fred Plaut was behind the dials in CBS’ 30th Street church studios during this recording session.  Plaut’s standard microphone setup is fully evident in the stereo soundstage.  Brubeck’s piano was on the right side of the studio while Morello’s drums were set up on the left side of the studio.  Wright’s bass was in the middle, sandwiched between two sound barriers to provide sound isolation, and Desmond was situated in the middle in front of Wright.  This tended to be Brubeck’s regular stereo positioning while at Columbia.  At least when Fred Plaut was recording the session.  A photo from 1959 shows this stereo soundstage in real time.

The sound quality itself is lively and punchy.  Wright’s bass in particular is full-bodied and in focus.  The rest of the instruments are expertly recorded and balanced, from Desmond’s airy sax to Morello’s swishing brushes.  You can even hear Wright as he moves his fingers against the bass strings as he reaches to grab the bow towards the end of the “The City Is Crying”.  The 30th Street Church Studio of CBS strike again!


The Place of Acquisition

Two years ago, my girlfriend asked me what I wanted for my birthday.  I thought about it for a minute, then said I wanted this album, as it was one of the few Brubeck albums I didn’t own at the time.  She didn’t need to verify if I wanted it on vinyl; she knew the answer to that.  On my birthday, she gave me a package, and to my delight, it was a CD of this album.  Bless her heart, she couldn’t decipher what all the vinyl grading jargon was about and from what she could figure out, the best copies were too expensive, so she opted for the CD.  The very next day, I went down to my favorite Huntsville record store and guess what was sitting pretty in the new arrivals of the jazz section?  Yep.  And at $12, it was cheaper than the CD!  How about that?

2 thoughts on “Jazz Impressions of Japan // Dave Brubeck (Columbia CS 2212)

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