Dave Brubeck was one of those artists you simply assumed would be around forever.
He was already in the history books for redefining the presence, popularity and very structure of jazz as far back as the ’50s. But he didn’t leave us after that. When his landmark quartet with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello dissolved in 1967 after a storied 17-year run and a string of 19 studio albums with Columbia Records, he formed a new artistic partnership with sax giant Gerry Mulligan. After that came a generation-bending group with his sons, orchestral collaborations and compositional projects that ran from concertos and cantatas to oratorios and ballets. Then came new quartets, new solo piano settings and touring groups that teamed the pianist with friends new and old. The next thing you knew, Brubeck was 90 and going strong.
The pianist finally took leave of us yesterday, one day shy of his 92nd birthday. But his legacy and inspiration remain with us as a veritable monument of jazz integrity.
I first saw Brubeck in 1978. He and his sons performed at Memorial Hall for the debut concert in the University of Kentucky’s Spotlight Jazz Series, which would run strong for the 25 years until a lack of student interest killed it off. How disheartening, considering one of the key demographics Brubeck won over at the dawn of the ’50s was collegiate audiences.
The biographers will always cite Brubeck’s polytonality and the adventurous time signatures his works embraced as the leading components of his legacy. I didn’t care (or, more properly, had no appreciation) for any of that initially. When I first heard Unsquare Dance as a kid, I clapped along with the quirky rhythm, sensing none of the music’s daring spirit but all of its outward joy.
That, to me, was the key to Brubeck’s artistic charm. For all of the craftiness within his compositions, for all of the mathematical intricacy of their construction, the music was never less that completely accessible.
The last time I saw Brubeck was in January 1996 for a dead-of-winter performance at the Opera House that reteamed the pianist with his Mulligan-era bassist, Jack Six. The concert, held only two days after Mulligan’s death, shifted from light, Debussy-like fancy to rhythmic blues to rustic swing. Through it all, the smiles the pianist exchanged with his bandmates were positively childlike.
So what Brubeck album do we recommend as a parting shot? Well, the landmark 1959 recording Time Out is the most obvious choice, and any number of his quartet works for Columbia (1961’s Time Further Out, 1962’s Countdown: Time in Outer Space and 1964’s Jazz Impressions of New York) make for fine also-rans.
But allow me to recommend my favorite Brubeck record, the 1995 CD edition of Live at the Berlin Philharmonie, which more than doubles the playing time of the recording’s original 1972 vinyl pressing. It not only captures the Brubeck/Mulligan alliance at its zenith, it offers perhaps the finest recorded variety of the pianist’s library of performance moods. The music it contains is intricate yet inviting, pensive yet playful and as soulful and loose as it is studied.
Put this one on, and you can’t help but smile. And you can count that as one of the finer entries in Brubeck’s massive book of career accomplishments.