Although I am a huge fan of Dave Brubeck and his music, I don’t always listen to his music. There are times, however, when I revisit his music and momentarily listen to nothing else BUT Brubeck. During one of those recent (ok, current) Brubeck Binges, I had thought about all of the wild, next-level, phenomenal Brubeck moments that were caught on tape and decided to gather ten of my favorites and write about them here. Brubeck is misunderstood enough without his legacy being reduced to “Time Out” and his anemic studio albums. No, what the world needs is a list of Brubeck “best-of”s curated by an actual Brubeck fanatic. Who knows, maybe you’ll become a Brubeck fan (or at least a Brubeck respecter). So without anymore blabbering from me, here are ten personal favorite solos from Dave Brubeck, in chronological order because there’s no ranking greatness.
1.) This Can’t Be Love – 1952
Recorded live at a Southern California nightclub, this track captures the Dave Brubeck Quartet early in its career and full of youthful energy. Alto saxophonist Paul Desmond exhibits a bite and drive here that he would only rarely show in later years, and Brubeck quickly proves that he was deconstructing pianos from day one. This solo aptly shows how exciting Brubeck could be when the inspiration hit him, allowing his exuberant improvisations to carry him through and totally obliterate the song’s structures and tempo. Luckily, he had bassist Wyatt Ruther and drummer Herb Barman firmly holding the underlying harmonies and rhythms in place.
2.) Lullaby In Rhythm – 1953
For many years, this was my favorite Brubeck solo. Full of dense chords, flirtations with other time signatures, and above all else fun, Brubeck really explores the unique chord structure of the tune on this outing. At one point, he superimposes a series of triplets in the middle of his solo that effectively pits Brubeck’s 3/4 time against the rhythm section’s 4/4 time. Made during an appearance at Dave’s alma mater, the College of the Pacific in December of 1953, the audience really digs drummer Joe Dodge’s series of fours with Brubeck, raucously cheering after each and every set.
3.) Le Souk – 1954
Another tune recorded live (notice a theme?) at a college, “Le Souk” is a unique example of the Brubeck Quartet’s ability to freely improvise with abandon. Developed on the spot, Desmond improvises on a minor mood that quickly becomes Middle Eastern in taste. Brubeck’s solo destroys that mood altogether and firmly brings it back to reality, creating a solo that utterly contrasts with Desmond’s lithe sax work. At one point, after some wild piano chording, Brubeck begins to dismantle the keyboard by methodically and chromatically descending down the piano. Nearing the end of road, the audience roars with appreciation while Brubeck’s foot can be heard loudly tapping out the time. He was feeling it that night.
4.) For All We Know – 1958
One of the great things about Brubeck (and Desmond) and one of big reasons why I’m such a major fan of his is his ability to use anything and everything going on around him as inspiration for his solos. This inspiration can manifest itself in various ways, and admittedly doesn’t always work successfully. But that’s the great thing about jazz – it’s about risk-taking!
Performing live at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958 on the California coast, Brubeck transformed what could have been just an unfortunate mid-performance incident into a legendary and witty moment in his long career. The plane flies over as Brubeck is in the middle of a rhapsodic solo, yet Brubeck continues stubbornly on. As the plane zooms by and the group can be heard again, Brubeck deftly plays the U.S. Air Force song before slipping right back into his lush chordal solo again. It’s a magical moment and one that I love.
5.) It’s A Raggy Waltz – 1961
Humble pie is best served warm and with a side ice cream, and preferably not in public. Ralph Gleason was not a fan of Brubeck’s, having eviscerated him in print since the early 1950’s. Yet, when Brubeck was in town in 1961, riding high on ‘Time Out’, his group somehow found its way into the TV studio and in front of Gleason’s cameras. It’s always great to see Brubeck at work, as you get an appreciation for both him as an improviser as well as a human. He looked funny when he got into the music. His active mind caused his hands to stutter momentarily over the keyboard as he thought about what to play next. All of this is on full display on this rather tasty and inspired run through Brubeck’s original tune and the inspiration for this here website of mine. Desmond digs in with three (3!!) choruses of solo before handing it over to Brubeck, who gradually builds from single note runs to thundering chords that go with and against the waltz time. He even gets some stride piano thrown into the mix! This is an extremely Brubeckian solo.
6.) Someday My Prince Will Come – 1962
Appearing again at Monterey’s jazz festival, Brubeck and company perform a tune they helped popularize among other jazz musicians. Brubeck and Desmond use the waltz-time tune as a vehicle for their explorations in time signatures, both pros by this point. Brubeck’s solo here is fun and stimulating both to the listener and to him, as is audibly apparent. He stumbles upon “I Got Rhythm” and after exploring it a bit, opens another door and explores that room as well. He gets some wild, dissonant chords in as well before returning to the tune’s melody and taking it out.
7.) Blue Rondo a la Turk – 1963
To be fair, the entire concert is absolutely insane, but the quartet reaches a level rarely captured on tape on this particular outing on “Blue Rondo a la Turk”. Desmond plays one of his tastiest, wittiest, most logical solos of all time, and when he finishes, everything is at a fever pitch. Brubeck expertly diffuses things by riding the high before bringing it down to a whisper, the band following him. What follows is an excellent study in dynamics and the art of building a solo. Brubeck slowly builds from single notes with no little input from his left hand to gradually more and more piano. Before you know it, he’s thundering away at the piano but swinging so hard you can almost here Carnegie Hall swaying with him. Mercy. The swing is strong with this one.
8.) In Your Own Sweet Way – 1964
Performed in Belgium in a studio, this is one of Brubeck’s more sensitive treatments of his beloved tune. After Desmond’s ethereal solo, Brubeck maintains the reverent mood set by Desmond, playing a delicate, beautiful solo as perfect as anything Ravel or Debussy ever wrote. Then Brubeck throws a curve ball, moving into a fiercely strutting thing that gets Eugene Wright on bass bobbing his head. This is all a setup for one of my favorite moments in Brubeck solo-dom- the disgustingly funky playing Brubeck does at the bridge, complete with moving chords with delicious harmonies that gets the bass to start walking and the drums to start punching. Just as soon as he gets this kick out Brubeck cools things back down for the outro. All in all, this is a sleeper performance but one of Brubeck’s most achingly moving ballad performances on tape.
9.) Unisphere – 1964
Filmed later in 1964, this time in Helsinki, Finland, this original tune gives Brubeck’s group a chance to romp in 5/4 time without playing one chord the whole time like on “Take Five”. Brubeck’s solo here again expertly builds from single notes to a magnificent climax of two-fisted piano. Pay attention to his left hand, by the way. At a few points during his solo, it’s mirroring the bass’ rhythm, which isn’t that crazy until you realize he’s doing that while playing completely different rhythms in his right hand. Who knew 5/4 could swing so hard?
10.) Take Five – 1986
You didn’t really think I wouldn’t include at least one performance of this tune on here, did you? The thing about “Take Five” and the Brubeck group is that they grew more and more adventurous with it the longer they played it. With one basic chord to work with, a lot can be done. By the 1980’s, Brubeck was taking the tune to the limits of outer space. Enter this remarkable solo. Early on, Brubeck flirts with different keys, major and minor tonalities, and time signatures. Before you know it, Brubeck is going for broke. Who knows what key he’s in or how he got there? Does it really matter? He’s in a major key, which totally changes the genetic makeup of the tune and it’s honestly beautiful. Needless, to say, this is one of my favorite recordings of Paul Desmond’s famous tune.