Dave Brubeck, a Time Traveler

Dec 18, 2013

Dave Brubeck in 1972.
Credit Heinrich Klaffs / Creative Commons

Dave Brubeck, the jazz genius and venerable Wizard of Wilton who died a year ago this month at 91, was mad about time. Playing with time brilliantly, bending, reshaping and rewinding it, he constantly experimented with the permutations of odd-seeming, even weird time signatures, notated with funny-looking fractions like 5/4, 9/8, 7/4 and 13/4.

A native of Concord, California, the amiable, generous maestro loved Connecticut, his adopted home state, and lived in Wilton with his close-knit family for decades. Even at the most manic tempo of his international fame, he somehow managed to squeeze in precious time to play frequently throughout the state, enthralling huge crowds from Hartford’s urban Bushnell Park, to the picturesque, rural digs of the Litchfield Jazz Festival, a nationally celebrated, Connecticut-crafted gem of a jazz fest that he supported ardently.

While a globe-trotting Jazz Ambassador with his famous Dave Brubeck Quartet (the DBQ), this master Time Bender absorbed the various ways time is played everywhere around the world from Japan to Turkey, from savory and not so savory street bazaars to posh concert halls, all so that he could make time dance to his own tune.

Time was everything for him. His breakthrough albums included releases with such time-obsessed titles as “Time Out,” “Time Further Out: Miro Reflections,” “Countdown: Time in Outer Space,” “Time Changes,” and “Time In.” Appropriately enough, this transplanted Connecticut Yankee time traveler enjoyed a tremendous breakthrough for his career in 1954 when he made the cover of a magazine called, appropriately enough, Time.

Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett in 1962.
Credit YouTube

Considering his fascination with time, Brubeck would, no doubt, be amused today by the sudden and quite surprising spike in his record sales in 2013 caused by the seemingly miraculous discovery of his long lost, one-of-a-kind, 1962 White House jam session with Tony Bennett, which Columbia/Legacy released late last spring as “Bennett & Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962.”

Recordings were discovered only a few weeks after Brubeck's death.

The timing of the unearthing of the unique recordings, which had been missing for a half-century, was uncanny, more odd than, say, even 12/4 time. The recordings were discovered only a few weeks after Brubeck’s death, which occurred just one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

The tapes, which over the decades had assumed a mythic aura because of their mysterious, Bermuda Triangle-like disappearance, were discovered by an archivist rummaging among Sony Music Entertainment’s enormous vaults. Somehow, the Brubeck/Bennett tapes had been mistakenly filed in the archives among classical recordings, making their archaeological discovery all the more wondrous.

So, thanks to the fortuitous find, the complete White House concert, which marked the first time Bennett and Brubeck ever played together, was, at long last, released intact, presenting the entire live performance before an enthusiastic young college crowd, with William B. Williams, then a famous, dulcet-toned radio host, as emcee.

Not only does the concert -- which had been arranged by the Kennedy White House as a reward for college students who had worked in Washington as interns that summer -- sound good technically, but the collaboration, which might not have seemed all that likely at the time, actually clicks. Maybe it's even better and swaggers with far more vigor (or “vigah” as JFK would say) than Brubeck and Bennett might have expected from their totally unplanned, first-time ever jam session together.

Bennett, who has always been a jazz singer at heart even at the apex of his dizzying pop success, is absolutely exuberant, obviously in seventh heaven to be playing with a bona fide jazz musician like Brubeck. And Brubeck, in turn, sounds totally charged to be collaborating with Bennett, whether the pianist is unleashing bullish bebop lines or generating a deep funky mood that surprises everybody. Everything Brubeck plays makes Bennett even more and more exuberant, more of an unabashed jazz singer gleefully taking chances you’d never hear in his pop-oriented studio recordings.

Liberated from all commercial constraints and grooving high on a jazz holiday with his new best buddy Dave, Tony ecstatically demonstrates his pop-free jazz chops, ending every song with operatic, fortissimo flourishes. Seizing the opportunity for Tony to be Tony, he's full-throated and open-throttled, boldly mixing bravura with bravado in his bravo-worthy performance. Even when Brubeck, suddenly and without warning, shifts gear into challenging, hard-charging double-time, Bennett is right on it.

Bennett and Brubeck were scheduled to appear on the bill as separate headlining acts for that August concert. The idea of pairing Bennett with Brubeck’s trio (alto saxophonist Paul Desmond sits out the four tracks of the B&B summit meeting) was hit upon on the spot by Tony and Dave themselves. Once they agreed impulsively to go ahead and give it a shot with no rehearsal whatsoever, the music they created is extemporaneous, very loose, playful, a bit rough-hewn, and immersed in the kind of intimate, con brio, homey feeling that Brubeck enjoyed when jamming with famous guests in his living room in Wilton.

At the time, Brubeck and Bennett were both rising stars and, obviously, in their physical and creative prime and very much on their game. Brubeck was riding high with his recent mega-hit “Take Five’’ (written by Paul Desmond). Bennett’s now immortal hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” had just soared onto the charts 17 days before the White House-arranged concert. (Actually, the crowd of collegiate government interns was so big that the end-of-summer celebration had to be moved from the White House Rose Garden on August 28, 1962, to an open air theater near the base of the Washington Monument, which provided a storybook backdrop setting for the upbeat, historic collaboration.)

The concert is divided into three sets, with the classic Brubeck Quartet (Brubeck, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello, a native of Springfield, Massachusetts; and bassist Eugene Wright) sprinting through the inevitable “Take Five” at an unusually, almost unnervingly swift tempo. The DBQ performs other pieces that also toy with time, including Brubeck’s jazz tribute to Chopin, inspired by the quartet’s tour of Poland. The second set features Bennett with the Ralph Sutton Trio performing the no less inevitable, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” along with such other signature hits such as “Rags to Riches.”

And then, finally, the grand finale summit meeting, which comes alive with ebullient renditions of “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Chicago,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “There Will Never Be Another You.”

The recording, for all its holy relic status after its 50-year entombment and resurrection in 2013, might not be a milestone artistic achievement in the distinguished careers of these two American music masters. But it is great fun. Unplanned and created in the heat of the moment, it sports a passionate edge and sense of play that technically flawless, antiseptically produced studio products just can’t match.

Although the timing of the discovery of the recordings was purely accidental, the album itself couldn’t be a more fitting way to commemorate the first anniversary year of Brubeck’s death. It’s a totally unexpected but most welcome reminder of the pianist/composer’s vibrant oeuvre, which was and always will be a celebration of life, timeless art over which even death shall have no dominion.

Even a half-century later, the collaboration, which once was lost but now is found, still sounds alive with amazing grace, even evocatively nostalgic for the one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.

Jolie Rocke Brown.
Credit Jolie Rocke Brown

Soulful Servings

Just as Brubeck loved to mix jazz and classical elements, so does the resourceful, genre-crossing duo of vocalist Jolie Rocke Brown and pianist Joel Martin, well-schooled artists noted for their alchemical blends of everything from jazz and classical to hymns and spirituals.

In a performance called “Jazzical Hymns for the Soul,” the duo prepares soulful servings Sunday, December 22, at the Jazz Brunch at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford. Seatings: 11:00 am and 12:30 pm. Tickets: $35, general public; $25, museum members. Information: (860) 838-4100.

Curtis Fuller.
Credit Curtis Fuller

Fuller Brassman's Birthday Bash

Curtis Fuller, the noted trombonist, celebrates his 79th birthday as he performs with saxophonist Javon Jackson’s all-star combo Friday, December 20, at The Side Door Jazz Club, 85 Lyme Street, Old Lyme. The venerable veteran’s birthday was actually December 15, but, like jazz itself, Fuller’s festivities just keep on rolling. Pianist George Cables is featured among the all-star celebrants at the birthday bash. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Showtime: 8:30 pm. Tickets: $38.50. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com or (860) 434-0886.

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