Friday, December 7, 2012


Brubeck on Time Magazine cover November 8, 1954

For people of my generation, the memory of Brubeck's famous hit album, Time Out [1959], with its signature 5/4 time standard Take Five theme, is indelible. Even for those of us raised on classical, or rock, or country, or traditional jazz,  this Columbia LP was iconic. It was a line drawn in the sand between the world Ellington had imagined, and the future we could see forming over the horizon. Brubeck's approach was filled with elegance, and restraint, and fine distinctions. The first side--Blue Rondo a la Turk, Strange Meadow Lark and Take Five--is perhaps the best 20 minutes of original jazz recording of the second half of the 20th Century--pure concentrated statement, confident and fully formed and seamless. Listening to it again, today, a day after Brubeck's death, I'm impressed once more with how good it is. 

But the nostalgia it evokes brings a lump to my throat too. There was nothing ever really "cool" about Brubeck or his music. He was a warm human being, and the music wears that temperature and affection with all the confirmation of a best friend's handshake. There's never any doubt about it. My favorite is Strange Meadow Lark, which features Paul Desmond in the central section, followed by a return to Brubeck's thematic reiteration. One of the prettiest tunes you'll ever hear, poly-tonal and shifting its time, but with a heart of gold, good and bad times and joy and hurt all recollected in tranquillity, with a conviction in the value of life. 

The only time I ever heard Brubeck play was at the Mountain Winery venue in Saratoga, back I think in the 1980's, at a point at which one imagined he was on the verge of retirement, but which was not the case at all, as he continued to compose and perform right up through the second decade of the new century. That night he played all the old favorites, albeit with different sidemen, including his son, who contributed on the electric guitar. 

Brubeck was civilized, and liberal, and dependable--qualities not always found in jazzmen, and that accounts for his longevity, as well as his popularity. Though changing styles made him somewhat irrelevant in later decades, his music was good enough to stand up to the test of time, unlike that of much of the music of the 1950's. It's music for the mind as much as for the soul. Though it could be very declamatory, it was frequently so laid back that you could just let it murmur in the background of whatever you were doing at the moment. That was why they called it "cool" though it was not really reserved or reluctant. Like all good jazz, it felt like improvisation, and conversation, picking up hints and threads and echoes from point to point and transforming them subtly and convincingly into novel versions, the whole process one of cooperation, a mix of difference(s), the blended milieu. 

Brubeck lived so long he outlived himself. Or, maybe not. Maybe he made it all the way to the end without a skip or a missed beat.    

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lighter Than Air - New Cocktail

Man's earliest attempts at flight look silly to us now. Inventors and tinkerers looked at birds and insects and thought they could imitate aspects of the mechanisms which enable them to take wing, but they didn't look closely enough. Their study of flight was incomplete and naive, not respecting the simplest aspects of the physics of gravity, propulsion, stress and stability. The mechanics of flight aren't simple, when you get into their finer points, but it should have been obvious to the crackpots who tried out their preposterous contraptions that their amazing machines had no chance of escaping the limits of land-bound existence. 

If they had really studied how birds fly, for instance, they would have realized that birds have a finely adapted motion made possible by an incredibly light and agile wing, which would require a device as intricate and flexible and subject to subtle command as a mammal's limb. The stages men went through to attain flight were a series of false leads and dead ends. The first manned flights weren't really flights, but floats--by way of hot-air balloons. It would be a long time before they were able to understand the principle of fixed wing passage through air, and how the shape of the wing permits the lift which makes  true flight possible. Today, we seem to have reached a plateau, with our supersonic jets and delta wing craft. We can't change the essential limits of our atmospheric medium, and we haven't discovered how to neutralize gravity, so we're pretty much limited to what we can engineer through the air. 

The early flying machines look like feeble monuments to the stupidity of man. They're like parodies of our innocence.  


Ordinary men don't seem to dream as much as they used to. We live in an age in which we've ceded the  curiosity and creativity and ingenuity to "the experts"--we no longer live in the age of the amateur--everyone must be an expert to make something useful and new. Technology demands expertise, and the untutored or uninitiated need not apply. 

There's something touching--indeed there's something delightful about the way these early aeroplanes looked, in the same way the early motorized carriages did. They look like something an amateur mechanic or engineer might cook up in his back garage in his spare time. Men don't read Popular Mechanics anymore. They read computer magazines, if they read anything. 

It may be that one of the hallmarks of a healthy modern society is the interest its ordinary citizens display in making and devising solutions to problems, in investigating and trying to discover answers to simple questions. Are Americans a lazy, passive people, content to follow life as it passes before their television and computer screens, happy to consume and acquire and fritter away their time? I don't know, it's a simple question with a complicated answer. Are there still husbands who amble out to the garage to work on projects in the evenings and on weekends? As a reader of Boy's Life in my childhood, I dreamed of growing up to be a scientist or an inventor, when I wasn't dreaming of being a major league ballplayer or a sailor or a forest ranger or a short story author. Boy's Life was a little like the Saturday Evening Post for boys, with some Popular Mechanics thrown in for good measure. It's been owned by the Boy Scouts of America since near its inception. A lot of the guys I grew up with were heavily into fixing things, as if this were a rite of passage into male maturity. Home workshops were their testing ground, and they reveled in it. It was supposed to teach you to be practical, to solve problems, and to focus your attention and energy on constructive work, instead of getting into mischief and falling into perdition.     

That world was a fantasy, and everyone sort of knew it. The vision we had of our prosperous life was a residue of the desperation and fear that had left its mark on the lives of our parents, who had lived through the Depression and World War II. Life was getting better all the time, and we were going to build on that dream when we grew up. But in the 1960's, we decided that dream didn't make a lot of sense. At least some of us did. Most of my generation wasn't comprised of rebels and outlaws and nuts. We were mostly pretty well-intentioned. That's what we were taught, and that's what we believed. 

In my life, I became fascinated with making split bamboo fly-rods, and taking large format photographs, and designing gardens, and writing poems, and composing music, and collecting rare first editions. And I've done all those things, mostly to little effect, but with much investment of time, thought, energy and money. When I grow up, I think I'll put away these childish things and be serious about life, but in the meantime, I'm going to continue to chase my diversions, one of which is making up interesting and irresistible cocktails. This one will make you feel coolly sophisticated as you sip it on the veranda, or the balcony, dressed in your tuxedo beside a stunning brunette wearing a black cocktail dress, or--as I do--leaning against the kitchen counter, munching on salted pistachios, shooting the breeze with my wife of 43 years.  

Here's the recipe for another very refined mixture, as always, by proportion (this makes two drinks):

4 Parts Tanqueray #10

2 Parts Aquavit
1 Part Kirsch
1/2 part Almond syrup
1/2 part lime juice

This one is a little like my Grey Satin Lady I created last week--a bit reserved. Perfect for reflecting back on life's little ironies. Looking back now I think, in a sense, I've fulfilled the dreams instilled in me by my parents, growing up to have a family, to pursue a long career, and to have useful interests along the way. I think they would have liked me to do a stint in the armed services, but that would have meant, in my case, going off to Vietnam at the height of the war, something I was sure I didn't want to do, and am glad I didn't. Given the identical circumstances, I think they would have acted much as my generation did. 

I wonder what it must have felt like to be the first human to fly, as the Wright Brothers did in Kitty Hawk in 1903. A little like stepping out onto the surface of the moon. We're coming up on the 110the anniversary of the feat this month. As a boy, I used to enjoy making models of airplanes--the kind constructed out of balsawood strips and paper pasted around the fuselage and wings. Those models were designed to fly, but they were too flimsy, and always broke up when you gave them their maiden flight. They solved one problem (lightness), but weren't sturdy enough. Do boys still dream of making balsawood model airplanes? Probably not. They must spend all their time sitting in front of computer screens, playing games and surfing the net.