Pianist, composer, arranger, and all-around nice guy Dave Brubeck was a remarkable individual and musician from the very beginning, and his life and music continues to be discussed today. Born December 6, 1920, this year would’ve been his 100th, yet despite passing away in 2012, his legacy and controversy has been celebrated in articles and writeups all year leading up to flurry of publicity surrounding his birthday this past weekend. Reading all of these tributes and reflections, however, I found myself growing more and more annoyed at the ubiquitous (and honestly lazy) references to Brubeck’s hit album ‘Time Out’ and the varying degrees of cleverness involved in the making of these references. Brubeck enjoyed a career that spanned 7 decades, yet ‘Time Out’ and “Take Five” (which, many writers seem to not know, was written by saxophonist Paul Desmond and NOT Dave Brubeck) are the main things he continues to be defined by.
It’s ‘time’ to let this tired, one-dimensional trope of Brubeck go to pasture. In my attempt to help change this narrative of Brubeck and not just be the guy shaking his fist at his phone screen and then not doing anything, I came up with a list of ten Brubeck albums that make for a well-rounded introduction to Brubeck the musician, Brubeck the bandleader, and Brubeck the artist. This is for the general public and jazz fan whose only knowledge of Brubeck involves corny wordplay with time.
A couple of disclaimers:
- Brubeck’s career, as I mentioned earlier, spanned 70 years. This list draws upon the formative years of his career when he led the Dave Brubeck Quartet from 1951-67.
- This list is purely my personal, unadulterated opinion. It’s not an official list by any means, just a fun one!
- Philip Clark wrote an excellent book (shameless plug: Buy it here!) that uses ‘time’ in the title. This is a rare example of an actually clever tie-in. Seriously, buy the book. It won’t be a waste of your…time.
And with that, to the list!
10. Brubeck Plays Brubeck
This is a great introductory album to Brubeck the pianist and Brubeck the artist, quite simply because Brubeck plays solo piano and even wrote the voluminous liner notes on the album that amounts to a personal treatise and manifesto on Brubeck’s ideas on jazz. This engaging album was recorded by Brubeck in his Oakland, California home late at night in 1956. It features him alone at the piano, recorded with a home tape recorder, which makes for a more intimate, cozy-sounding vibe.
Comprised entirely of originals, the album beautifully captures Brubeck at his unadulterated and creative best, hindered only by his mind and lack of a third hand. The Brubeck sound is amply displayed, proving to be something of a hybrid between the stride of Fats Waller, the fugal side of Bach, the Impressionism of Ravel and Milhaud, and the modern jazz sounds of the day. This synthesis is what Brubeck is all about. Many of the tunes on this album would appear in his later albums, with “In Your Own Sweet Way” becoming the most famous. Start your Brubeck journey here. It’s a sleeper, but between the music and Bru’s liner notes, this album is still relevant and perfectly explains what Brubeck’s jazz ideology and piano approach was all about. He thoroughly spells out this Brubeckian approach in his liner notes, and since this is the first album on the list and he explains himself so well, here’s Brubeck is in his own words.
“My concept has been that style is a means of expressing an idea, and when developing an idea a style evolves. Not understanding my basic concept has been the cause of much meaningless labelling.”
“But I have tried to remain free of musical straitjackets and to retain freedom of choice within the idiom of jazz, so that primarily my style is a summation of all musical experience to which I have been exposed.”
“In the course of one concert tour I can read such contradictory critical comments as “cerebral”…”emotional”; “delicate well-constructed lines”… “pile driver approach”; “technically facile”…”chaotic pounding”; “contributor to jazz”…”defiler of jazz”‘ “This is jazz?” Now, surprisingly enough I would be inclined to agree with most of these critical comments, at specific moments, in specific tunes, on a specific night of performance. Because, as one astute critic discerned, I have “no style, except the style of the idea performed.”
All of these quotes from Mr. Brubeck, though written in 1956, apply to everything he did before and after he penned them. The critics weren’t reading, or they had short-term memory.
9. Jazz At Storyville
Paul Desmond, alto saxophonist and Brubeck’s musical foil in his band for years, told Brubeck that this was his favorite album that they made together. Listening to the album, it’s not hard to understand why. Originally released in 1953 as a 10-inch record on Fantasy Records, the music on this album is an intimate, spontaneous, and lovely example of Brubeck and his men at work in a live setting. Recorded live at Storyville, a former jazz club in Boston, Massachusetts, this record finds Brubeck and Desmond playing some of the most moving music of their careers.
There’s “Over The Rainbow”, which retains much of the winsomeness of the lyrics in Brubeck’s playing, and his rhapsodic solo here is unique in that it’s almost devoid of jazzy syncopation. In fact, he plays his last chorus completely on the beat but does it in a way that sounds so good that Desmond voices his approval not once but multiple times during Brubeck’s solo. That’s Desmond you hear telling Brubeck “8 out, remember the changes” before sailing in on the sax to play the melody and close the tune out on a poignant, mysterious note. Then there’s “You Go To My Head”, an opus for Desmond and featuring some more orchestral piano from Brubeck.
The pace quickens with “Give A Little Whistle”, a curious bit of mischief where Desmond plays the “Whistle” melody while Brubeck plays the chords to “Oh Lady Be Good”. Brubeck and Desmond engage in some improvised counterpoint on this track, a famous device they used to great effect in the early days of the quartet. Part of the magic of these three tracks is that Brubeck and Desmond are basically performing as a duet. The bassist wasn’t there and the drummer was sick and quietly playing in the background, freeing Brubeck and Desmond up to play freely and uninhibited. The whole album has some great moments (Brubeck’s solo on “This Can’t Be Love”…mercy), but it’s these three tracks that feature that almost eerie ESP between Brubeck and Desmond that made them such perfect collaborators.
8. Brubeck Time
Ah, the first time ‘time’ was used in a clever tie-in with Brubeck. In 1954, Brubeck appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, which was a big deal back then. It put Brubeck on the map and introduced him to the American general public. It truly was Brubeck’s time, thanks to Time. Recorded in 1954, this was Brubeck’s first studio album in years and was thus going to be named ‘Brubeck In Hifi’, but after his appearance on Time… well, you know.
The music itself is a fine example of the Brubeck Quartet from that period, heavy on standards that showcase their improvisation and reharmonizations. “Jeepers Creepers” becomes a hip, laid-back thing while the ordinarily straightforward “Why Do I Love You” becomes an upbeat romp that casually changes key every few bars. “Stompin’ For Mili”, allegedly a spontaneously performed reaction to some in-studio criticism, is the “Oh Lady Be Good” from the Storyville album, albeit with some anger and minor keys thrown in for good measure.
The most famous track from the album, however, is a quiet, reflective minor blues named “Audrey” for Audrey Hepburn. Paul Desmond’s solo on this couldn’t have been more perfect if it had been written and composed beforehand, and Brubeck maintains the pastoral mood in his solo. He sticks to chords and then sails into the major key while Desmond plays a haunting tag to close the tune out. The rhythm section on this album doesn’t get much love and appreciation (I call this edition of Brubeck’s quartet the ‘Vintage Quartet’, as they were before the Classic Quartet), but the drummer in particular is one tasty guy. Joe Dodge’s technique of using a brush for accents in one hand while using a stick in the other for the cymbals makes for a lightly swinging yet punchy sound. Brubeck didn’t like recording in the studio much, but this album is a swinging and creative success.
7. Jazz At Oberlin
Recorded live at Oberlin College in Ohio in early 1953, this was the album that put Brubeck’s college circuit on the map and showcased to the world the power and excitement his group was capable of producing. His wife, Iola, spearheaded the college tours, writing to campuses and working a deal that was beneficial to both the college and the group. This album features the quartet playing in a fiery style (Brubeck literally called Desmond’s performance on the album “perfection on fire”) that they would rarely return to in later years, at least on tape. A rumor has persisted that the band members had had a fight backstage and thus were angry with one another when they played, explaining the high level of playing that the band exhibited. While Brubeck has said he doesn’t remember any unpleasant feelings with the group that night, he does remember that the higher ups on campus weren’t too happy that a jazz band was performing in their sacred bastion of classical music. In fact, they gave him the crummy piano to play on, which, listening to the album, Brubeck seemed to take any frustration he had out on the poor instrument.
The group absolutely cooks. It starts off with a ballad named “These Foolish Things”, but even on this leisurely outing, Desmond is off on a double-timing kick, spitting out a delicious flurry of notes that elicits applause from the audience. Brubeck’s solo begins in a quiet mood but soon builds to a soaring climax. Then there’s “Perdido”, a jam session favorite that finds Desmond swinging hard and spinning line after red-hot line of continuous musical thought that at points sounds like one saxophonist has finished a solo and another has stepped up for their turn. The solo Brubeck turns in is almost entirely a roaring two-handed chordal fiesta that manages to swing in spite of the thunder. “The Way You Look Tonight” features what may be the fiercest Desmond solo in his discography. Rife with fun quotes from other songs and wailing in the high reaches of his sax, Desmond is one with his horn. This record showcases the Dave Brubeck Quartet in their element: Playing jazz in their own, free-wheeling way before a live audience of appreciative people. And that audience. I can’t think of any other jazz album of the era that has such an exuberant, extroverted crowd cheering, clapping, and shouting during and after a performance.
6. Gone With The Wind
Stay with me. Why choose a random studio album that the group made dedicated to a section of the country that, in 1959 when this was recorded, would not have welcomed the guy playing bass (Eugene Wright)? I chose it because the guys clearly had a ball making this record. I suppose you can’t take yourself too seriously playing “Swanee River”, but the fellas really throw themselves into the music here, with performances that range from fun (the arrangement and trading bars of “Lonesome Road”), incredible (Joe Morello’s drum solo on “Shortnin’ Bread”, which also qualifies as fun), and moving (Desmond’s statements on “Georgia” could make a grown man cry). Desmond especially must’ve been in a good mood to use such tunes as Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” and “Angels We Have Heard On High” as fodder for his solos.
Everyone gets a chance to shine, with the sidemen each picking a tune as a feature. Morello got “Shortnin’ Bread”, Desmond chose “Basin Street Blues”, and bassist Eugene Wright shines on “Old Man River”, which was also a famous feature for the great singer Paul Robeson. This album was one of the last truly inspired studio sessions Brubeck and company had, and even stuffy Down Beat Magazine recognized the special nature of the album, awarding it a whopping five stars. By the way, this is the first album in this list that features what fans lovingly call the Classic Quartet, which is the name they’ve given to Brubeck’s lineup from 1958-67.
5. Brubeck A La Mode
For a brief period from the late 50’s into the early 60’s, Dave Brubeck recorded with his old friend and clarinetist Bill Smith. Three albums came out of these recording sessions and they each had Smith stepping in for Desmond, making for a very different-sounding quartet. They’re sleepers in Brubeck’s discography, but his 1960 collab with Smith on Fantasy Records entitled ‘Brubeck A La Mode’ stands out among them. Each of the tunes on the album is an original by Smith and use musical modes (haha get it?), or single scales, as their foundation, much like Miles Davis did a year earlier with ‘Kind of Blue’.
If you had to describe this record with one adjective, it would be “serene”. Even the upbeat tracks have a calm, peaceful air about them. It may be because of the writing and composition of the tracks, Brubeck’s lighter and more delicate touch, or perhaps Smith’s lithe playing, but the music has a noticeably different flavor from the things Brubeck usually waxed with his group. This change in personnel and musical material provides Brubeck with a new palette to work with, revealing yet another facet of Dave Brubeck’s musical artistry. His work on “Soliloquy” is achingly beautiful, and the entire group sparkles on the slightly melancholy “One For The Kids”, a nostalgic tune that uses a familiar children’s taunt as its melody. Check this one out and be prepared to hear a side of Brubeck only rarely and sparingly heard on his own albums with his regular quartet.
4. Jazz Impressions of Japan
Ok, so I know I said Brubeck’s recorded output from studio sessions declined after 1959 and I know I said that Brubeck’s more lyrical and delicate touch made spare and rare appearances on record, but this album is the gem that contradicts both of those statements. Inspired by a tour of Japan in the spring of 1964, Brubeck recorded exactly what the album title says- impressions. Brubeck had already waxed two records under his personal ‘Jazz Impressions’ series (1957’s ‘Jazz Impressions of The USA’ and 1958’s ‘Jazz Impressions of Eurasia’), but this album was the crowning achievement of his impressionistic aspirations. As Brubeck explains in the liner notes to the album, “[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 poem only suggests the feeling.”
This album accomplishes exactly that- suggests a feeling or a scene. The fact that it doesn’t wallop you over the head with gongs, flutes, or anything like that during a period when exotica albums were the thing is a testament to Brubeck’s artistic integrity and resolve. The tunes in this album, all but one written by Brubeck, provide a framework for the quartet to work with that naturally shepherds the musicians into an organically Japanese vibe without sacrificing their personal voices or becoming cheesy. While “Koto Song” is the most famous tune from the album, “The City Is Crying” perhaps comes the closest to this idea of a suggested scene and feeling. You can almost hear the words of the title as Brubeck states the melody, with Morello’s cymbalwork evoking the falling rain and Wright’s bowed bass in conjunction with the tympani act as the rolling thunder. Impossibly beautiful already, Desmond’s entrance and subsequent solo just adds to the image of a city enveloped by a spring storm. Brubeck’s solo smoothly transitions from the gray mood Desmond painted to the slightly somber yet stately melody as he closes the performance.
The album ebbs and flows with lilting and haunting tunes like these, making this a gem amongst Brubeck’s many lackluster albums released during the 1960’s.
3. Jazz Goes To College
Released in the summer of 1954, this was Brubeck’s great debut on the Columbia Records label, and for almost a decade afterwards was his most popular album. Like his ‘Jazz At Oberlin’ album of ’53, this record features live performances of his group on the college campus. Unlike his ‘Jazz At Oberlin’ album of ’53, this record features live performances of his group from multiple college campuses, including a return appearance at Oberlin. If the Oberlin album showcased Brubeck and his group at their energetic and most high-octane state, this record finds the group at it’s most introspectively creative. Due to a personnel change, the group was forced to abandon it’s standard setlist and instead improvise on well-known standards.
This album is notable for a few reasons. The personnel change resulted in the creation of the Vintage Quartet (1954-55), the group that Brubeck led during the time he rose to mainstream fame. It doesn’t get much ink in the history of Brubeck but this edition of his quartet (again) deserves some love. Bob Bates on bass, Joe Dodge on drums (the alliteration alone deserves some acknowledgment), Paul Desmond on alto sax and of course Mr. Brubeck on piano. Amen.
Secondly, the album is noteworthy for it’s inclusion of the Brubeck Quartet’s first recorded foray into the blues. Nearly 12 minutes long, “Balcony Rock” languidly unfurls as a gentle exposition on the blues as a palette of pastels, a literal rhapsody in blue. Desmond caresses the tune lovingly while injecting it with his subtle and open humor (that’s “The Mexican Hat Dance” he quotes), deserving of the cheers and whistles that mix with the hearty applause he receives at the conclusion of his solo. Brubeck maintains the mood, playing the blues as Ravel might have. Desmond reenters for some brief counterpoint before taking it out with that haunting tag that they would revisit on “Audrey”.
“Le Souk”, coincidentally recorded at Oberlin, stands out as a highpoint in terms of spontaneous creation. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the group follows Paul Desmond’s Middle East-inspired improvisations and creates an evocative tune in the process. Brubeck is colossal on this during his solo, apparently still feeling animosity towards that poor piano. He seems bent on rearranging the piano’s keyboard, and I’m sure he had more than one splinter after his incredible performance. “The Song Is You” is a feature for Paul Desmond’s tasty alto sax, and he shines as he plays line after logical and humorous line, the rhythm section gently but firmly propelling him forward. Grab this one to see what Brubeck and co., when inspired by an audience, could achieve as a collectively thinking group. There’s something new revealed with each listen.
2. At Carnegie Hall
The mother of all live Brubeck recordings, and one of the greatest live jazz albums of the era, this album is simply incredible. Recorded in concert in February of ’63 and released later that year as a two-record album, this is a rare instance where the entire concert was released to the public. And what a concert! Whatever you thought about Brubeck, I’m willing to bet that this here album will crush those thoughts and cause you to reevaluate your opinion. If you listen closely, you can hear the four men actively thinking and taking risks on the fly. There’s Brubeck playing in two keys at the same time on the opener, roaming around in the new terrain that he’s opened up for himself. There’s… there’s too much phenomenal instances going on here. Desmond’s remarkable solo on “Pennies From Heaven”, the quartet’s breathtaking and concert-altering performance on “For All We Know”, the group digging in on “It’s A Raggy Waltz”, Morello’s absolutely insane exposition on the drums on “Castilian Blues”, Desmond’s absolutely searing and delicious outing on “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and Brubeck’s subsequent glorious climax on the same tune… And for you ‘Time Out’ devotees, you get your “Three To Get Ready”, “Blue Rondo”, and even “Take Five”, as well as other romps in different time signatures.
The word ‘legendary’ is overused when it comes to musical performances, but in the case of this concert, it is completely and unabashedly deserved. This is a legendary concert. It’s the closest thing we will ever get to catching the group in person. If any of these albums on this list is greater than ‘Time Out’ and more perfectly explains what the Gospel of Brubeck is about, it’s this one.
1. Dave Digs Disney
Is this Dave Brubeck’s greatest album of all time? It may be blasphemous, it may be unpopular, and it may be crazy, but I would say yes.
Let me explain.
This album holds within its grooves everything Dave Brubeck and his quartet stood for. The unorthodox time signatures, the foreign musical material, the improvised counterpoint, the Brubeckian reharmonizations, the solo piano passages… it’s ALL here. Recorded in the summer of 1957 and inspired after a family trip to Disneyland, this album, in many ways, was more scandalous and groundbreaking than ‘Time Out’ ever was. For starters, absolutely nobody who considered themselves a serious musician was messing with Disney songs. Disney was for kids, not for adults, and especially not adults who were hip enough to be into jazz. It was potential career suicide for a serious artist like Brubeck to do an entire album devoted to these Mickey Mouse tunes. And yet, it wasn’t until Brubeck, a father of 6 kids, recognized the intrinsic musicality of Disney’s tunes that jazz artists began to mine this fertile land. I mean, your album must be important if guys like Bill Evans and Miles Davis take notice and then follow suit.
‘Time Out’ gets nearly all of the accolades for being the album that introduced unorthodox rhythms to jazz, and while it certainly put them on the map, this was not Brubeck’s first rodeo. Ignoring the early recordings he made in the late 1940’s with his octet that had different rhythms swirling throughout, or even his trio recording of “Singing In The Rain” (also from the late 40’s) that had a dancing section in 6/4, Brubeck and Desmond introduced the world to their arrangement of “Lover” in 1955 on Brubeck’s ‘Jazz Red Hot And Cool’ album that featured a fast waltz superimposed over a slow four walk. It was a tentative performance for sure but it hinted at things to come. Brubeck and Desmond would take this unique way of thinking in waltz-time to the next level on ‘Dave Digs Disney’ with their romp on “Someday My Prince Will Come”. Although Morello sticks to a conventional jazz waltz figure on the drums during Desmond’s solo, he switches over to that quick four rhythm while the bass stays in three. Boom, now we have a polyrhythm (two or more rhythms at once) going on, which frees Brubeck to do all sorts of wild and convoluted stunts on the piano. The longer Brubeck solos, the further out he goes. It’s an exciting case study into the possibilities that polyrhythmic improvisation provided, and Brubeck’s fierce performance spoke to its merits better than the comparatively tame and sterile music on ‘Time Out’. And it swings hard!
Then there’s the absolutely delicious and phenomenal improvised counterpoint Desmond and Brubeck engage in during an inspired two choruses on “Give A Little Whistle”, with fugues and fanfares abounding in some of the best counterpoint this side of Bach. This improvised counterpoint was one of the hallmark devices of the early Brubeck quartets that made it so stimulating and popular and this aspect of the quartet would all but disappear after this stellar performance, making this album all the more precious.
Lastly, there’s Brubeck’s harmonizations and reharmonizations that readily showed that Disney’s tunes weren’t as square as everyone assumed them to be. Nowhere is this more evident than on “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Brubeck’s opening statements remove all the syrupy and saccharine elements of the song and infuses it with a groove that shows just how jazz-worthy the tune is. Desmond does his thing, but it’s when Brubeck returns to close the tune out alone at the piano that the tune’s underlying harmonies come through. Playing the melody over a shifting canvas of chords, Brubeck hits us with chord after atonal chord that sounds as modern as anything being played today.
And people were listening.
Miles Davis added “Someday My Prince Will Come” to his setlist, going so far as to name an album after the tune. Bill Evans included “Someday My Prince Will Come” on his extraordinary album ‘Portrait In Jazz’ and kept it, as well as “Alice In Wonderland” and “When You Wish Upon A Star” in his book for years. Numerous other jazz musicians followed in Brubeck’s wake and began to gravitate towards Disney tunes, and nowadays we wouldn’t even blink if a jazz musician included a Disney song in their setlist. And to think that it was Dave Brubeck who first had the foresight and the artistic prowess to plunder Disney’s songbooks. In doing so, he would create an album that was both fun and severely accessible to the general public yet artistically rewarding, musically rich, groundbreaking, and unapologetically Brubeck.
So, if you’re a newbie to Dave Brubeck party, an established jazz head who wants to give the man another chance, or somewhere in between, make this THE Brubeck album to listen to and digest instead of ‘Time Out’. The music is familiar, the music swings, and if you’re not careful, the music may make you a fan.