Dave Brubeck not only created some of the most innovative and irresistible songs in Jazz but served as a conduit to the genre for countless listeners. Along with platinum album sales of his 1959
masterpiece, Time Out, Brubeck and his quartet toured relentlessly, especially on the then-unexploited circuit of American college campuses. It was his wife Iola's idea, a shrewd piece of marketing strategy that would become a
kind of legacy: legions of young music enthusiasts would be introduced to Jazz courtesy Brubeck and his quartet's cool syncopation and curious time signatures.
My wife and I had the privilege of seeing Dave Brubeck perform in May 2011 at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey. I sent a review of sorts via e-mail to a few friends the next
day. There's nothing like actually listening to Brubeck's music, of course, but I thought I'd share this outline of my reactions. For those lucky enough to have seen him perform, it will probably sound familiar.
Brubeck died in early December 2012. His achievements in composition and the attendant honors he earned over his long lifetime place him among the giants of Jazz. As numerous stories about him and
interviews with him attest, he was also a man of great decency and compassion, qualities that informed many of his musical works.
Consider these notes, then, not a eulogy but an enthusiastic invitation to listen (again) to this great musician:
14 May 2011
On Saturday evening we went to see the Dave Brubeck Quartet at McCarter Theatre. We were floored: a dazzling performance by a 91 year-old master and his ensemble of ringers.
Brubeck is 91! His touch, his technique, his feel is simply sublime. At this point, he has to work on the side of understatement; on many songs he played only with his right hand for most of the
piece. His right is crazily beautiful, like some musical bird that flits and alights with precision and sly perfection over the tops of rare trees.
He would literally save himself up for when he deployed both hands. Cases in point: Brubeck played two solo numbers that were magisterial, including a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that, for
both the gorgeousness of his playing and the poetry of the total context, made me misty-eyed. Of course, the Quartet also served up their greatest hits, rolling through "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo à la Turk" with dazzling brio.
Brubeck's style on many of the songs started to remind me of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg variations. It was almost mystical: Brubeck was solidly inside the Jazz medium, yet his
notes–the choices of his notes and their elegant execution–started to rise up out of some of the numbers in a Bach-like way, especially when he'd play in his scaled back, one-handed mode.
Then, suddenly, you'd hear those unmistakable Brubeck moves, his signature chops like a boxer dodging a series of jabs then connecting with a bell-ringer.
In between songs, Brubeck was gracious and charming, relating vignettes and funny stories, such as how one of the first members of his quartet asked to retire after having toured and played for several
decades because "he wanted to get to know his family and what his children looked like." There wasn't the slightest trace of boasting in his tale–Brubeck's humility is almost a palpable aspect of his persona–but it
brought home an astounding fact: this gentle piano player organized his legendary ensemble in 1951!
As you can tell, I was pretty moved by the whole show. I don't know if I've ever heard instruments played with such clarity in a live setting. When you get four virtuosos who've been playing Jazz
together for 30 years, well, it's pretty crazy how tight–and loose–they can be. Unlike Rock music, Jazz is a medium in which musicians can keep playing not only "believably" but, in Brubeck and his Quartet's case,
with greater and greater mastery.
It was a privilege to see this living legend and his mates play. It was also one of the most poetic evenings of entertainment that I've ever experienced.