This set of five fully remastered CDs is one of two such sets released by Legacy to honor Dave Brubeck’s 90th birthday on Dec. 6, 2010. The other set compiles five of the classic Brubeck Quartet’s “Time” albums recorded between 1959 and 1966. This is a more eclectic collection, comprising an early solo Brubeck disc Brubeck Plays Brubeck from 1956 and four by a couple of different iterations of the quartet — the popular and highly regarded Jazz Goes To College (1954), the Southern-themed Gone With The Wind (1959), the orchestral Brandenberg Gate: Revisited (1963) and one of a series of geographic-themed platters, Jazz Impressions Of New York (1964).
The earliest, Jazz Goes To College, features Brubeck with his mainstay Paul Desmond on alto sax, with Bob Bates on bass and Joe Dodge drums. As far as I can tell, it’s never been available on CD. It’s a wonderfully executed album, partly because of its live setting and partly because of the quality of the playing. The audiences where the performances took place — University of Michigan, University of Cincinnati and Oberlin College — seem knowledgeable and highly appreciative, at times egging on the players during particularly inventive passages.
The album starts with two Brubeck/Desmond compositions, both fairly low-key swingers, “Balcony Rock” (a riveting 12-minute take) and “Out of Nowhere.” The rest of the album consists of covers, including a driving “Le Souk” which is almost totally a Desmond workout; a bop treatment of Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Take the ‘A’ Train” that really gets the kids wound up from the opening bar; and a peppy swinging “Song is You” by Hammerstein and Kern. It wraps up with the bluesy “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” and the upbeat, textured “I Want To Be Happy.” Jazz Goes To College was the quartet’s inaugural album on Columbia, and it definitely started things off on the right foot. Accessible mid-century jazz at its best.
Brubeck Plays Brubeck is probably the least accessible of the package, except to those who just love solo piano jazz. It was previously available on CD only as an import. Recorded at his home over a period of two days in 1956, it’s Dave Brubeck and his piano exploring tonality, improvisation and the intersection of jazz and classical music. The latter is particularly noted in “Two-Part Contention,” an exercise that juxtaposes straight counterpoint in the opening section with slightly more swing in the following two sections in which he improvises on the themes established there. “Weep No More” is a lovely ballad with some dramatic flourishes. “The Duke” is a “one pianist to another” tribute to Ellington. “When I Was Young” is appropriately wistful and blue at first, then segues into an uptempo blues. The ballad “One Moment Worth Years” is an homage to Fats Waller. The album ends on a lightly humorous note with “The Waltz,” which features some seriously tongue-in-cheek Liberace-like flourishes.
Gone With The Wind which was previously out of print, I found to be one of the most interesting and entertaining of all of the Brubeck albums featured in these two five-disc sets. According to the original liner notes, the members of the quartet (by now the “classic” combo that had Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass) knew it was going to be something special by the end of the very first take. Most of the tracks were indeed first takes. And in fact in many instances the quartet was performing a particular song for the first time, feeling their way through the improvisations as they went. At times you can tell they’re listening closely to each other, wondering what’s going to happen next.
Inspired by a recent swing through the South during which Brubeck controversially refused to replace Wright with a white player on bass, or alternately to play to segregated audiences, Brubeck decided to record a disc of Southern-themed standards, choosing the theme from the well-known Civil War melodrama as the title track. It’s the last track on the disc, and from this distance (the melody is unfamiliar to me) the least resonant. It’s arranged as a standard swing-tempo blues.
Otherwise, though, the selections include two by Stephen Foster (“Swanee River” and “Camptown Races”), the blues standard “Basin Street Blues,” the traditional “Short’nin’ Bread,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” and one of the most moving songs in the history of American musical theater, “Ol’ Man River.” Appropriately, Wright takes the melody on his bass nearly all the way through this short track.
Throughout this album the bass and drums both play crucial roles. Morello drums the melody on “Short’nin’ Bread,” developed from a snippet of the song he sometimes inserted into his solo on Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” in concert. And the album includes two versions of “Camptown Races,” which differ mainly in Morello’s attack, one light and swinging the other more aggressive and percussive. Wright’s bass at the beginning and end of both of these tracks consists of a repetitive two-note metronomic figure that’s appropriate for a song about racehorses.
The real revelation here is the second track, s nearly eight-minute cover of the standard “The Lonesome Road.” Written in 1920, it was substituted for “Ol’ Man River” in the 1929 movie version of Showboat and was performed by many jazz and gospel artists through the years including Sinatra, Jimmie Lunceford, Rosetta Tharp and many more. Louis Armstrong was known to do a mildly ribald “Negro preacher” comedy act as his band members sang the song in the background. The song itself has gospel overtones, advising the listener to be ready to meet his or her maker. Brubeck & Co. turn it into a meditation on the road itself, open, expansive and languid, Wright’s single-note bass line in a couple of sections suggesting the slowly passing telephone poles beside the highway. Midway through, it kicks into a double-time swing section, Desmond’s smooth sax line taking you sailing carefree down Route 66. Toward the end of this section, Desmond and Brubeck take turns tossing out snippets of various pieces of Americana, including Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” before it slides back into languid mode for the finish. It’s a subtly masterful performance by all.
Looking at the title and tracklist of this album before I listened to it, I expected it to be perhaps my least favorite of the batch. The opposite turned out to be true. It’s a delightful melding of Americana and cool jazz.
Brandenburg Gate: Revisited, however, actually is my least favorite disc of the 10 in these two reissue packages. I simply don’t care for orchestral jazz. It reminds me of the era’s insipid “dinner music” by the likes of Wayne King and Cyril Stapleton. Which is unfair to this disc and others like it by Brubeck, Miles Davis and others, I know. I simply find it unpalatable, except for those times when Desmond or Brubeck improvise over the orchestra’s unobtrusive vamping.
But if you do like orchestral jazz, you’ll like Brandenburg Gate, which features the classic quartet and an unnamed orchestra, arranged by Dave’s brother Howard Brubeck. This disc includes orchestral rearrangements of several previously recorded tunes, including “In Your Own Sweet Way” from Brubeck Plays Brubeck and “Kathy’s Waltz” from Time Out. The title tune, which here occupies all of side 1 and lasts 18 minutes, first appeared in a much shorter version on Jazz Impressions of Eurasia while “Summer Song” was on Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. The only original is “G Flat Theme.”
Jazz Impressions Of New York from 1964 was one of the latest in the quartet’s series of “impressions” albums, which included USA, Japan and Eurasia. This one is a collection of pieces Brubeck wrote for the “Mr. Broadway” television show. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a good example of the quartet’s fine studio work during this period. As jazz, pieces like “Theme From ‘Mr. Broadway’ ” and “Broadway Bossa Nova” are fairly pedestrian, but as television music for that time they seem fairly adventurous. The ballad “Autumn In Washington Square” is a moving piece on a fairly simple theme in waltz time. It’s one of a four-piece seasonal suite all in waltz time but different moods. The others are the swinging “Spring In Central Park,” the hopping “Summer On The Sound” and the cool “Winter Ballad” featuring some fine counterpoint between Brubeck and Desmond. “Something To Sing About” is upbeat and reminds me of Ellington somehow. “Lonely Mr. Broadway” is a beautiful midtempo swing blues with typically sublime work from Desmond. “Sixth Sense” is in a slinky slow 6/8. “Broadway Romance” is, well, romantic. The album ends with the aptly named “Upstage Rumba,” in which members of the band, engineers, arrangers and whoever else was in the studio grabbed percussion instruments and improvised along. Desmond starts the piece on a deep bass marimba, and everybody has a grand time. It’s perhaps not up to the quartet’s usual technical quality, but it’s great fun.
This Dave Brubeck reissue set is a little uneven from my point of view. Although it has a couple of albums I don’t much care for, it also has a couple of my favorites, Jazz Goes To College and Gone With The Wind. At the budget price for which the set is offered, it’s worth it just for those, which were previously unavailable. These reissues are a suitable tribute to an American musical icon.
[Sony Masterworks, 2010]