A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

When he died last December, one day short of his 92nd birthday, Dave Brubeck was deservedly famous, but for the wrong reasons. It’s an easy mistake to make since, from a musical standpoint, there were several Dave Brubecks to choose from. He thought of himself as a composer who played the piano, and to that end he wrote hundreds of tunes, a handful of which became part of the standard jazz repertory, while simultaneously composing classical works ranging from chamber music to large-scale oratorios based on religious themes. Ironically, the piece most identified with him turned out to be one he didn’t write (“Take Five”). Better known to the public as an indefatigable bandleader and pianist, his playing was deft, spirited, fearless, romantic, and recognizable, sometimes prone to episodes of questionable taste or excessive zeal. He was, early in his career, an innovative stylist who provided an attractive alternative to the tumultuous intensity of bebop by shrewdly adapting elements of modern classical harmony and rhythmic figuration and Baroque counterpoint into a jazz context – and was accused by hostile critics of not swinging. His enormous popularity, in large part due to the number of casual and new fans seduced into the fold, was achieved within five years of the formation of his first trio (the added appeal of Paul Desmond’s ethereally lyrical alto saxophone – with Lee Konitz, then the primary opposition to the hegemony of Bird – to the band in 1951 should not be underestimated) – and sustained, with little change of format, for nearly 60 more years.

But the qualities which made Brubeck so accessible to a broad and faithful audience over such an extended career – an inherent, unquenchable, reliable, optimistic tunefulness; an “intellectual” aura that was never too challenging or experimental; and familiarity through repetition – were not those which made a strong impression on burgeoning avant-gardists like Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton in their formative years. In his famous article on Taylor in the book Black Music: Four Lives, A.B. Spellman relates that Cecil identified Brubeck’s early ‘50s music as “constructivist,” and said “I was very impressed with the depth and texture of his harmony, which had more notes in it than anyone else’s that I had ever heard. It also had a rhythmical movement that I found exciting.” Taylor’s interest in Brubeck’s methods of constructing solos from complex transformations of material and his openness to exploring the improvisational vectors between order and free association would quickly be superseded by the more lasting influence of Horace Silver, Erroll Garner, and Duke Ellington, of course, and yet that same harmonic density and rhythmic contrariness which caught Taylor’s ear can be heard, years later, as among the key inspirational sources of Braxton’s unconventional piano conception. Braxton‘s youthful love of Paul Desmond’s playing meant he digested plenty of Brubeck too. On alto sax, he’s worked several Brubeck tunes into his various “standards” projects over the years, and recorded “In Your Own Sweet Way” in 1974 with Brubeck himself (All The Things We Are; Atlantic), but at the piano, both the Knitting Factory 1994 (Leo) version of “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “The Duke” from Piano Quartet, Yoshi’s 1994 (Music & Arts) find Braxton maneuvering through the chord changes at oblique angles, briefly referencing the melody or tonality before filling the available space with swells and flurries of thick, ambiguous Ivesian clusters, more extravagant and abstractly expressionistic, perhaps, but in keeping with the spirit of the young Brubeck’s focused intensity. Not only here, but throughout his piano recordings, Braxton’s penchant for labyrinthine digressions from the chosen material, condensed polytonal chording, and arhythmic restructuring all expand upon the most interesting, and important, aspects of Brubeck’s early style. In fact, his popularity notwithstanding, it was precisely these harmonic and rhythmic peculiarities which made Brubeck, from 1950-54, with the exception of Thelonious Monk, arguably the most radical pianist in jazz.

Brubeck’s late-‘40s period of study at Mills College with Darius Milhaud is well known, and the French composer not only schooled him in the intricacies of polytonality, but also convinced him – along with fellow classmates including William O. (Bill) Smith, Cal Tjader, and Dave van Kriedt – to incorporate classical compositional devices in their own jazz idiom. Thus the 1946 Octet which they formed was, conceptually, a Third Stream ensemble even before the term was invented, and the hybrid approach they took would be an influence on Brubeck’s later composed pieces like the ballet scores Points on Jazz (1960) and Glances (1983), and the Bach-derived Chromatic Fantasy for String Quartet (1996). (Pianist John Salmon has recorded three commendable albums of Brubeck’s notated piano works, two on Naxos and one on Phoenix.) Stravinsky’s music, too, was in the air; Desmond’s solos frequently quoted from the opening bassoon melody of Le Sacre du Printemps (and in 1956 he fashioned “Sacre Blues” for his own Fantasy record date); a particularly sublime example is how – unlike the direct quotation he inserted in the “Stardust” they recorded in 1952 – he insinuated but never quite stated it throughout his mesmerizing elaboration of the same tune during a 1954 concert, and how Brubeck commented on Desmond’s ingenuity with his quotation at the beginning of the piano solo on “At a Perfume Counter” moments later (all three pieces are on Stardust, Fantasy). Stravinsky’s piano transcription of his Three Movements from Petrushka has also been said to have inspired Brubeck’s block chording and off-beat rhythmic inclinations. But Bach was to prove iconic to Brubeck the pianist. Especially in the 1950 and ‘51 recordings, there is often a crispness and linear accenting in his phrasing that brings Bach to mind; moreover, two-part counterpoint – in his own solos, and in tandem with Desmond’s alto sax or later Bill Smith’s clarinet – was a defining factor throughout his career. Early examples can be found in the interaction with Cal Tjader’s vibes in “Undecided” and “How High the Moon” (The Dave Brubeck Trio: 24 Classic Original Recordings, Fantasy), and between Brubeck and Desmond at the conclusion of the almost schizophrenic solos on “Give a Little Whistle/Lady Be Good” (Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond, Fantasy).

But the most radical aspects of Brubeck’s early style are not his classical adaptations and allusions, rather, the extremes he embraced within a single solo – the harmonic shifts and sudden mood swings, jolting contrasts of restrained melodic nuance erupting into purely physical pounding. His rhythmic impetuousness sometimes led to awkward segues and other times to exhilarating breakthroughs, and thus served as fuel to both detractors and fans. Poet and drummer Clark Coolidge, in his book Now It’s Jazz (Living Batch Press), reminds us that Brubeck, always modest, called his extended improvisations “my own catastrophes,” but Coolidge, with insight developed from both of his disciplines, appreciates them for their “Massed harmonic wisdoms, sometimes he seems almost to forget rhythm entirely, so bound down does he get in the chordal depths.” A good example is the 1953 “Jeepers Creepers” from the Black Hawk in San Francisco, where he begins his solo with two choruses of conventional thematic variation which gradually grow denser until he’s power chording, only to interrupt himself with a silly quote of “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” then return to the chords, now nervously double-timed, reconstructed and redirected into new, darker harmonic relationships, finally rummaging around in the bottom register, like a man who’s lost his keys, until Desmond bails him out. Other solos, like the way he drifts into harmonic no-man’s-land on “Pennies from Heaven” and wanders though what Coolidge described, thinking of another solo, as “the maddest corner-turnings of idea” on “Stompin’ for Mili” (both 1954, on Brubeck Time, Columbia), show how he happily negotiated avenues of the unknown simply by trusting his own curious, discrete logic.

It didn’t always work. At times his rearrangements merely toy with the tunes (like the tongue-in-cheek opening of “Avalon” and the stop-and-start affectation of “Me and My Shadow”), and the relentless quotations come off as either charming and witty or incongruous and corny (“Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” on Brubeck Time is an egregious example of the latter; elsewhere “Royal Garden Blues” pops up several times over the years, which dilutes its effect). But, again, when carried to extremes, his solos’ abstraction of tunes like “Let’s Fall in Love” and “Tea for Two” (Cecil must have paid attention to this one), the re-imagination of “Over the Rainbow” (with Desmond commenting “yeahs,” unwilling to break the spell until the very end), and volatile dynamics and Monkishly patterned reinvention of “Christopher Columbus” as “Crazy Chris” (all on Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond), confirm the risky intuition of a uniquely creative mind. Latecomers who think of him as too polite and proper should hear the perversely aggressive attacks on the 1950 trio “Laura,” and the way he pummels the piano on the live 1953 “How High the Moon” (the latter from Jazz at Oberlin, Fantasy). His lack of swing bothered a lot of critics, but he replaced swing’s relaxation and spatial airiness with a variable compression of touch and timing, and as Coolidge points out, “a real hold on narrowing and thickening the line. Tension and sequence as a sentence structure.” Today, an employment of similar devices can be found not only in Anthony Braxton’s piano playing but, in equally idiosyncratic ways, that of Matthew Shipp, Irène Schweizer, Howard Riley, and no doubt others. The influence may not be direct, but Brubeck helped chart an unorthodox course that others now navigate effortlessly.

His appearance on the cover of the august news magazine Time in November 1954 was official acknowledgement that he was no longer a cult phenomenon; he had approval from the powers-that-be, especially now that he had signed to Columbia Records and had all of their p.r. machinery behind him. And not long thereafter it seemed that the unpredictability turned to familiarity, the rambunctiousness mellowed. Once Eugene Wright and Joe Morello reorganized the rhythm section, the music’s edginess was smoothed out and polished – which attracted even more fans. His biggest seller, “Take Five,” and the whole time signature shtick were still ahead of him, but more progressive viewpoints were on the rise – Herbie Nichols was recording for Blue Note in 1955, Monk’s career was revitalized after signing with Riverside, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra released their Transition discs in ‘56, Bill Evans was making a mark on the scene that same year. As Brubeck’s music grew in popularity, immediacy was replaced by intimacy – not necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps indicative of his increasingly mature compositional perspective taking precedence over his improvisatory nature. Apparently secure as both performer and composer, on occasion he even used his popularity for subversive means, by devoting three albums to the compositions of former Octet-mate Bill Smith (Near Myth and A La Mode, Fantasy, and The Riddle, Columbia) and one to those of Dave van Kriedt (Reunion, Fantasy) – a gesture of generosity unusual from an artist of his stature. Time passed, but Brubeck’s popularity never waned. As a guest on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz radio show in 1984, he was in a playful mood, offering a dazzling account of “St. Louis Blues” in complex polytonal garb, with hints of stride that called to mind a rollicking version of “I Found a New Baby” from 1942, when he was still a student at the College of the Pacific (an “encore” added to the 1953 Jazz at the College of the Pacific, Vol. 2, Fantasy), and even ventured a freely improvised duet with McPartland. Perhaps it wasn’t that Brubeck changed so much over the years, but our perception of him, and the context in which we heard him, did. Or should.

Art Lange©2013

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