Peruse the list of artists Chris Brubeck has composed music for and you will discover names that span generations and styles alike.
There is the concerto he wrote for a trio of genre-specific violinists (classical virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, jazz stylist Regina Carter and Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers), a quintet piece recorded with the heralded woodwind ensemble Imani Winds and a work for the Americana-friendly trio Time for Three performed this fall with the Lexington Philharmonic.
While all of that has established the multi-instrumentalist as a premiere composer, arranger and performer, there is a name his most formidable musical talents always seem to answer to – his own. That’s because Brubeck is the son of jazz icon Dave Brubeck, the pianist whose inventive use of time signatures was the basis of a far-reaching career that spanned over 60 years. But the father-son relationship was also a professional one. Chris and brother/drummer Dan Brubeck were regular bandmates of their father beginning in the ‘70s, playing together at the inaugural concert of the University of Kentucky’s Spotlight Jazz Series in 1978. So it’s of little surprise the music the siblings will perform for a New Year’s Eve concert tonight with the Philharmonic will focus less on Chris’s compositions and more on the music penned and popularized by father Dave.
“Part of the reason I have the courage and insanity to do what I do is because I grew up listening to my father do it,” Chris said. “My dad and Leonard Bernstein were some of the first guys in the jazz world and the classical world to try to put things onstage together and to try to work together. Since I grew up in a household where I saw it happen, it didn’t seem like a totally impossible thing for me.
“So my brother Dan and I really enjoy playing this music along with (guitarist) Mike DeMicco and (pianist) Chuck Lamb. We’ve played with quite a few orchestras over the years, some as far flung as the Russian National Symphony Orchestra in Moscow. We played a sold out performance at Tchaikovsky Hall, and that was really thrilling – to think, ‘Wow, we’re on the other side of the world and they have Dave Brubeck fans there.’ So to be able to play that music and bring the same basic mission, which is to have really cool music and then improvise on top of it, through, up and around it, is really great. That’s what we’re going to be doing on New Year’s Eve, too.”
While Dave Brubeck was best known for combo hits like Take Five (a composition by Brubeck Quartet saxophonist Paul Desmond), Blue Rondo a la Turk and Unsquare Dance, he composed numerous works for orchestra. One of his most prominent orchestral pieces, Brandenburg Gate (featured on Brubeck Quartet albums in 1958 and 1963) is scheduled to be part of the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve program.
“It’s one of those seminal pieces,” Chris said of Brandenburg Gate. “Frankly, people in the audience probably will not have heard it or will have compared it to Blue Rondo a la Turk or Take Five. But it gets a good reaction. It’s rather Bach-like and has room for improvisation. It’s really just a theme with variations.
“I’m always reminded of how important this was at the time in terms of where my dad wanted to go with his music. He used to get really nervous playing with orchestras. My dad used to be so nervous that he wouldn’t announce things to the audience or introduce guys in his band. It’s funny, because if you saw him later on in his life, he got much, much looser. Some nights, he would have what I call the Will Rogers Syndrome, where he would just have this funny face when he was talking and it was really hilarious. It was like seeing a standup comedian who would play piano. It’s hard to believe that he could have been so completely uptight about it when he started.
“I’ve played with orchestras with my father for probably 40 years. There used to be this feeling of unwelcome-ness when we would show up to play with some of them. A lot of old European-schooled immigrants thought mixing these two genres of music was a sin, although my dad would always try to remind the classical musicians, ‘Hey, remember that the greatest improvisers of the time were Bach and Mozart.’ Going to see Mozart play then would probably be like going to see Chick Corea play today. You have that same kind of thrill.”
The Lexington Philharmonic with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $25-$155. Call 859-233-4226 or go to