Brubeck on Time Magazine cover November 8, 1954
For people of my generation, the memory of Brubeck's famous hit album, Time Out , 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.