Note: Previously, I announced that I would also be posting a message tonight concerning the future of this blog. Since the review that follows has blossomed into over 2500 words, I have decided to postpone that announcement until next Wednesday night, January 8. I now return you to your regularly scheduled review. (Sorry. That’s what happens when I catch episodes of the original “The Outer Limits” on TV. Heh.)
If you were to walk up to the average person on the street in pretty much any city in America and ask them to name a jazz musician, just one, the odds are that most folks would be likely to respond with one of two names: Wynton Marsalis, or Dave Brubeck.
That is the measure of the mark both men have made on jazz and America. With all due respect to Wynton Marsalis, today I want to talk about Dave Brubeck and one of his albums that you may have never even heard of, let alone heard.
Dave Brubeck’s life and career have been well-documented (see the links at the end of this article) so I am not going to use a lot of space repeating what you can read elsewhere.
The basics are this: He was born on December 6, 1920 in Concord, California and he died in 2012, one day short of his 92nd birthday. Between those two dates, he had the kind of life and career that legends are made of.
A few of his many accomplishments: He was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and his 1959 album “Time Out” was the first jazz recording to sell a million copies. He stood up for the rights of black musicians, famously turning down lucrative contracts to take the Dave Brubeck Quartet to South Africa and to 25 southern colleges right here in America, because they would not allow black bassist Gene Wright to appear with the white members of the band.
In America during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, that was almost unheard of. And that was Dave Brubeck.
Making up my mind which Dave Brubeck album to write about was no easy task. The man released scores of albums over the years. And even though my personal music collection doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of his vast oeuvre, I do have a fair number of his albums, some on CD and some on vinyl. (One of the prides of my collection is a vintage vinyl copy of “Time Out,” the album that gave the world “Take Five.” On a couple of occasions I took that album to KMHD with me and played “Take Five” from it on the air during station fundraisers.)
Compounding the difficulty of the decision was the fact that I wanted the album I wrote about to be both typical Brubeck, but at the same time be different than the rest.
After giving it a lot of thought (and after spending time listening to a lot of Brubeck albums while I was burning up unused vacation time at the end of the year) I made my decision. I expect that not everyone is going to be pleased with my choice, and that’s okay with me. Opinions, it is said, are like (ahem) noses: everyone has one.
My choice for the Brubeck album to be the subject of Jazz For A Saturday Night #100 is the 1978 Direct Disk Labs release, “A Cut Above!”
The personnel for this recording were billed as “The New Brubeck Quartet” and consisted of:
Dave Brubeck, acoustic piano
Darius Brubeck, Fender Rhodes electric piano
Dan Brubeck, drum, steel drum
Chris Brubeck, fretless bass, bass trombone
One major change is obvious, and that is the fact that the group consists of Dave and three of his sons. The other major change is the inclusion of an electric instrument, the Fender Rhodes electric piano. This led venerable jazz writer Scott Yanow to pan the album (rating it at 1 ½ stars out of a possible five) in his perfunctory three-sentence review on allmusic.com.
I have the utmost respect for Mr. Yanow, but I disagree with him. I think there is a good chance that you will, too.
“A Cut Above!” is a 2-disk vinyl LP that brings us five more-or-less typical jazz tunes, a medley of seven Duke Ellington songs, and also unfortunately wastes one whole side of one disk on two religious songs. The records are labeled Side One, Side Two, Side Three, and Side Four, and that is how I will refer to them below.
Side one is devoted to the aforementioned “Ellington Medley,” which begins with “The Duke.” This is a quiet little song that belies what follows later on. The electronica kick in immediately, which may have disgusted Yanow but I thought it was done tastefully. I liked it. “The Duke” flows into “C Jam” and the pace picks up. Brubeck always hated it when his piano style was referred to as “bombastic,” but my thesaurus offers no alternative. His performance here is classic Brubeck and yes, that means bombastic. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” follows, and again we have a pretty straightforward rendition that minimizes the electronics and focuses on the melody. “Caravan” utilizes a bit of electronica in a way that complements the tune and leaves plenty of musical space for the others. Frankly, if you did not know there was no flutist, you wouldn’t know. “Caravan” segues into “Mood Indigo,” one of the classic ballads of all time. Chris Brubeck shows off his bass trombone skills and does a wonderful job of it. The penultimate song in the medley is the one no Ellington homage would be complete without, “Take The ‘A’ Train,” which is blended into “Cottontail” to made one long medley-within-a-medley. Darius Brubeck complements Dave with his Fender Rhodes electric piano here, and the combination sounds pretty darn good. This is a hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’, get up and MOVE! rendition of these songs. While this is not my favorite version of either song, it’s one that I won’t soon forget (and I doubt that you will either) despite the criticism of others.
Side two you will have to go elsewhere to hear about. I do not support, condone or knowingly promote anything whose sole purpose is the perpetuation of false hope, aka religion. Brubeck felt otherwise, and that certainly was his right. Unlike certain crass politicians and talentless celebrities today, Brubeck apparently practiced his faith without going out of his way to hurt others. That is one of the many reasons I respect him.
Side three opens with “Unisphere,” another lively tune with an unusual time signature (10/4). Here again we have the blending of acoustic and electric pianos, with a result that sounds better than you might expect, if not entirely traditional. Dan Brubeck’s work on the drums and cymbals here provides a good backing for the two pianos.
Next we have the classic, “Three To Get Ready.” It would be hard to hurt this song, and the guys did, in fact, do a bang-up job on it. (Hmm… A way to avoid the term “bombastic”? Heh.) Chris Brubeck does an outstanding job on the fretless bass, and the elder Brubeck more than tickles the edges of boogie-woogie in his solo.
Another Brubeck classic follows, “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” This version of the song runs just under seven minutes, and if the guys ever performed this one live I am certain that it brought down the house. What energy!
I am going to quote here from an unsigned addendum to the liner notes:
“…Dave’s sons take this old Brubeck standard a few steps further toward the end of this arrangement by playing in 15/8 time. Anyone care to count?”
Having no formal musical training myself, I’m not sure that I would recognize 15/8 time if it stood up and bit me on the wallet. What I do know is that this song cooks!
Side four consists of two songs. The first I don’t recall having never heard of before, “Unsquare Dance.” This is another rendition that would have brought down the house if performed live. The guys pull out all the stops on this one, and it shows.
Quoting again from the liner notes:
“…the 7/4 meter is a challenge to foot-tappers, finger snappers, and hand-clappers… The new version uses electronic keyboard, bass, drums, a highly syncopated, highly rhythmic beat, and some piano choruses that would not have been heard at the time of the first sessions, since in those days not even Dave Brubeck was playing strides in 7.”
I’m not sure what all that means, but I can tell you that, from the perspective of a layman who has an appreciation for more than one different musical genres besides jazz, this is a fantastic presentation of this song. Is there electronica? You bet. Does it sound electronic? Of course. Is that a bad thing? Scott Yanow will apparently tell you yes it is a bad thing. Well, forget the apparently, his review made his feelings very clear. But in my humble opinion, the younger Brubecks have merely helped bring their father’s music into the modern era.
The final song on the album is, surprise, surprise, “Take Five.” I have heard a lot of different variations of this song over the years. Some were comparatively short five or six minute studio versions while others were fifteen or sixteen minute extravaganzas recorded live in concert. Most of them sounded, with minor exceptions, like different takes from the same recording session. Not so with this version, which has to be the most unique rendition of this song that Brubeck ever recorded. Copy and paste everything I said above about electronica, in spades.
“Take Five” opens with the now-famous vamp, sounding at first pretty much like most other versions of this song. We are treated to a bit of electronica a minute or two in. I’m not sure which instrument we hear, and the liner notes don’t enlighten us. It sounds like an electronic simulation of either a trumpet or perhaps an alto sax (the Paul Desmond part of the song?).
For a short time there is a little bit of high-pitched warbling that almost could be from the soundtrack of the classic science fiction move “Forbidden Planet.” Despite my love for that movie, I have to admit that I could enjoy the song just fine without that part. Luckily for us it lasts such a short time that it doesn’t have a chance to be more than a minor distraction.
About halfway through, the song gets a lot mellower and much quieter than the original. Then the vamp returns, and hidden in the background at a very low volume is another warbling effect that sounds for all the world like nothing so much as a muted cell phone ringing! Every time I listened to this song I found myself pulling the headphones off to see if my venerable old Motorola RAZR was going off in the other room.
Then they go into the famous drum solo for which Paul Desmond originally wrote the song. Dan Brubeck may be no Joe Morello, but he is a fine drummer nonetheless, and I’m sure spending time with Morello and the rest of the original Quartet when they were boys helped the younger Brubecks shape their take on this most famous of all jazz songs. When the vamp once again returns, it takes us to the end of the song and the album with quiet dignity.
To state the obvious, this album is not for everyone. I have absolutely no doubt that a lot of people who love straight-ahead, mainstream jazz, will share Scott Yanow’s low opinion of it. And all I can say to that is, while feeling that way is their right, it is also their loss.
In my opinion, “A Cut Above!” from The New Brubeck Quartet would make an outstanding addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
The only song from this album that I could find online in embeddable form is “Unsquare Dance.” Here is your opportunity to hear part of this great album!
To learn more about Dave Brubeck and his music, here are some suggestions to start you off.
The official Dave Brubeck web site is here. The PBS “Jazz” web site has a page devoted to Brubeck here. So does the Biography channel and the showbiz newspaper, Billboard. Mark Deming has penned a nice bio of Brubeck for the allmusic.com web site. And here is what is billed as the last Dave Brubeck interview, on The Jake Feinberg Show. Upon Brubeck’s death, the web site heavy.com published this list of the “Top 10 facts you need to know” about him.
If you want to purchase your own copy, “A Cut Above!” in its original vinyl format can be found on amazon.com and other places as well. I paid $15.00 for my “fine” copy at Everyday Music in Portland six or seven years ago. Prices today (literally today, 1-4-2014) on Amazon range from a low of $10.98 for a used copy, on up to just under $50 for a copy billed as “collectible.”
Other sites such as Music Stack also have it, as does Discogs. Even eBay has 10 copies available as I’m writing this. Prices and condition are all over the board, so shop carefully and please, do your own research before you buy.
I also strongly suggest you find a way to listen to some of the tracks online before you make a purchase. I cannot stress to you enough that even though I love this album, it truly is not for everyone.
One thing to keep in mind that could affect prices is the fact that “A Cut Above!” was a limited-edition release, and every copy was individually numbered. My copy has a gold foil label stating the serial number is 06915. I don’t know how many copies they pressed in total, but 6915 is a comparatively high number, which may explain why it only cost me $15.
Me mentioning these or any other web sites is not meant to be an endorsement of them. Nor will I receive any financial or other compensation should you chose to make a purchase from any of them.
Thank you for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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