Jazz Impressions of Eurasia // Dave Brubeck (Columbia CS 8058)

Back to the ‘Better Than ‘Time Out” series of Brubeck albums, which is Raggy Waltz’s (admittedly protracted) celebration of Dave Brubeck’s December birthday. For this installment, here’s an album that was recorded a year before ‘Time Out’ and like that album is all-original material. Music to the!

The Music

The Tune: “Nomad”
Recorded: 25 July, 1958 in New York City, NY

  • Paul Desmond – Alto Sax
  • Dave Brubeck – Piano
  • Joe Benjamin – Bass
  • Joe Morello – Drums

From February through May of 1958, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was overseas in Europe, India, and the Middle East performing concerts on behalf of the United States. Brubeck, always listening to his surroundings and taking notes, developed ideas for compositions to be recorded when they got back home to the States. Most of those ideas became the tunes heard on this album. As Brubeck explained for the liner notes, he didn’t “approach the writing of this album with the exactness of a musicologist. Instead, as the title indicates, I tried to create an impression of a particular locale by using some of the elements of their folk music within the jazz idiom.” More on that later, as Brubeck goes on to make some interesting points about the process of writing such music.

The Brubeck four are in fantastic form as they bring Brubeck’s Eurasian impressions to life. Paul Desmond is eloquent and full of ideas as usual, and sounds none the worse for wear. In fact, he sounds downright inspired on this studio album, whether he’s on his Bach-meets-jazz fugal kick on “Brandenburg Gate” or wailing away on “The Golden Horn” or “Calcutta Blues”. Joe Morello’s technique on the drums adds color and authenticity to the music and he steps into the solo spotlight a few times. Some of that technique includes using his hands instead of sticks in some places. Bassist Joe Benjamin was the newbie in the group, replacing Eugene Wright for the summer of ’58 and doing a fine job.

(Fun side-note: Not only did his appearance in the group mean there were two Joe’s at the same time, but for the first and last time everybody in the quartet wore glasses. They look like a group of accountants or librarians)

Brubeck is classic Brubeck, which is to say he’s just fine. Whether he’s thundering away with some two-fisted dense chords or lithely engaging in counterpoint with Desmond, Brubeck’s piano constantly keeps you on your toes. Other Brubeckian elements made it onto the album, too. His snaps and his exclamations are on full display, particularly on the first tune, “Nomad”. “Nomad” also happens to be the standout track from the entire album. It’s like perfect. Of course, I may be biased. From Morello’s hand drumming to the lonely and plaintive melody statement by Desmond, the intro is beautiful. Add Brubeck’s loud snapping and one gets the impression of street musicians playing for their own pleasure. When Brubeck’s piano finally enters and establishes the harmonic structure, it’s like a light has been flipped on and what was a melancholy tune turns into something brighter and upbeat. Just as quickly it turns into a rousing jazz number, and soon Desmond is off, soloing over the harmonically interesting and compositionally logical chord changes. Brubeck’s solo here is rather interesting in that he sticks to chordal concatenations, directly contrasting Desmond’s lyrical solo. All in all, it’s a great track and it’s a shame other jazz groups didn’t cover it as it lends itself to blowing. Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers would’ve turned it into something fierce.

“Brandenburg Gate” is probably the most well-known track from the album, with “Thank You” coming close behind. “Thank You”, or “Dziekuje”, was written by Brubeck as a tribute to Chopin. Based on the Polish phrase for “thank you”, Brubeck first performed it before a Polish audience where it was warmly received. He kept both tunes in his back pocket throughout his life. “Marble Arches” is a polite little number that Brubeck wrote to evoke the light and happy atmosphere of London, England. Everyone gets a chance to solo here. “Calcutta Blues” is the most overtly ethnic tune on the album. For starters, it’s not a blues but a tune that drones on one note like Indian raga. Desmond really gets some gutsy, blues-drenched playing on this track.

The world tour that inspired this album also inspired the music that Brubeck’s group made on the ‘Time Out’ album the following year, most overtly displayed in “Blue Rondo a la Turk”. Like Brubeck and company did on ‘Jazz Impressions of Japan’, they stick to their own instruments and don’t do anything remotely similar to a gimmick or a put-on. This is pure jazz music as performed by jazz musicians, but it’s also highly impressionistic of the lands and cultures of Eurasia.

The Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating: C

While the music was authentic and honest without gimmicks, the cover art is heavy on the gimmick and corn. On one hand, it’s fun and quaint with Brubeck clearly amused and enjoying things. On the other hand, of course they stuck a turban on him. Because nothing says ‘Eurasia’ like a turban. And is this a commercial for Pan Am Airlines? Talk about product placement. The best part about this photograph? It was taken in… San Francisco, California.

The Back

This is probably one of most minimalist set of liners that ever appeared on a Columbia album. Written by Brubeck himself, the liners are extremely informative and descriptive in explaining how the music on the album came to be. A particular quote from Brubeck on how he writes his music is especially revealing and contains sound wisdom for jazz composers today:

“Therefore, the challenge in composing these sketches was not in the selection of a theme characteristic of a locale, but in writing a piece with chord progressions that would lead the improviser into an exploration of the musical idiom I was trying to capture. At the same time, the piece must fulfill the requirements of a good jazz tune – that is, the chord progressions must flow so naturally that the soloist is free to create.”

The Vinyl

Musical aspects aside, this album is a big deal because it was the FIRST Brubeck album to ever be issued in stereo by Columbia. Thus, this is the first Brubeck album recorded in Columbia’s hallowed 30th Street church studios in stereo. And what glorious stereo it is. Columbia rarely (if ever?) mentioned who the engineer was on their albums, but it’s a good bet that Fred Plaut was in the studio that day. Interesting to note on this maiden studio stereo recording is the stereo sound stage. Brubeck, normally on the right, is on the other side in the left channel. Morello’s drums, normally on the left, are displaced by Brubeck and on the right. The bass was usually in the middle with Desmond but on this recording is placed on the right with the drums. That leaves Desmond all by himself in the middle.

The acoustics are fantastic and life-like with plenty of space implied in the mix. On the CD and online editions of this album, the recording was remastered so that there’s a lot more air and space. I choose life-like over echo chamber. The labels are the classic 6-eye edition with the fancy coloring for the new-fangled stereo albums.

The Place of Acquisition

eBay. One of the rare albums I bought off that sight. Like I’ve said elsewhere, I prefer buying albums in actual stores verses online, especially from eBay. I like supporting local stores, and I feel like I’m cheating by going no further than my computer to grab a record. Also, as a black guy, I try and stay away from auctions as much as possible…

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