A Personal Tribute to Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck

This morning after I woke up, the first thing I saw on my facebook newsfeed was a post that read, “R.I.P Dave Brubeck”

I’m going to share a brief story of my encounter with the work of this wonderful American musician who left us at 91 years young.

My first introduction to Dave Brubeck and his legendary quartet was on the Gold 90FM station one evening as I was just chilling out listening to music. The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s iconic composition, “Take Five”, written by the saxophonist, Paul Desmond, came on the radio with this very crisp and hugely ambient drum groove played by the one and only Joe Morello (R.I.P). My ears perked up at that awesome drum and cymbal sound along with that very unusual swing groove. Now I was 14 years old at the time, and by then I knew what the time signature 4/4 meant as well I could add 1 + 1. This tune as the title implies, was in 5/4, as I would later find out (though I can’t exactly remember when I did).

The melody of Take Five was so catchy and sexy. The funky angular piano comping of Brubeck, the equally funky yet simple 3 note bass line played by Eugene Wright, and that ultra-cool tone of Paul Desmond’s saxophone got me hooked immediately. Then came the mind blowing moment for me as a drummer after Paul Desmond’s mesmerising solo – the great drum solo section played by Joe Morello. Joe displayed everything in that one solo that a serious drummer would would take years and years of practice and application to develop – pristine technique, precision time-keeping, a beautiful groove, great execution of dynamics, a huge rhythmic vocabulary, excellent independence, and a very strong compositional sense in an improvisational setting. These are qualities attributed to a musician who plays at the highest level. I became a fan of this band immediately just on the basis of Take Five..

Ironically, I didn’t seek out more of the band’s work until very much later when I had just completed the first year of my National Service. I was at the “That CD” shop outlet in Tanglin Mall to pick up a CD my father had ordered, and since I had a bit money from that monthly “allowance” from the army, I decided to pick a up CD for myself.  I saw a copy of the album “Time Out” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and purchased it without a thought.

Strangely, alot of the great music I discovered over the years up to this point were borne out of impulse purchases of albums, like Max Roach’s, “Members Don’t Git Weary”, which I bought at the now defunct Borders bookstore. I didn’t  hear even one note on that album but I intuited that it would offer a great listening experience. Some albums do have that sort of aura around it. I can say that “Time Out” is an album with the same aura. As I only knew one track from the album which I’ve just talked about, I wasn’t prepared for what was in store with the rest of album…

“Blue Rondo Ala Turk” opened Time Out. What a great start to the album! Just like Highway Star opening Deep Purple’s masterpiece album, “Machine Head” or their legendary live album, “Made In Japan”.  The into section to “Rondo” was full of shifting odd times. I didn’t really understand exactly what was going on but I eventually managed to transcribe that whole section for the drumset a few years later, armed with more rhythmic and technical knowledge. Great! Now I know about this new time signature, 9/8, thanks to Dave Brubeck and company!

Another favourite off  Time Out is “Three To Get Ready”. The form of this tune is based on alternating between two bars of 3/4 and two bars of 4/4. I never heard such an incredibly smooth navigation of both time signatures such that it all felt like it was in straight fours. That’s the Dave Brubeck Quartet for you. No matter how “out” they got with their rhythmic experimentations, it was all done in a such a way that was listener-friendly. Genius!! Another great track that demonstrates how they make odd time signatures sound so smooth  is “Unsquare Dance”, a 7/4 tune from their follow-up album, “Time Further Out”. There’s even a youtube video of a TV broadcast footage featuring a dance troupe performing to this tune! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yExwkQYcp0).

Moving along, I then discovered what is widely regarded to be one of the greatest live Jazz albums of all time, “The Dave Brubeck Quartet At Carnegie Hall”. It’s a 1963 double album that warrants serious study. The quartet proved  that night at Carnegie Hall that a Jazz performance could be both highly adventurous musically and highly entertaining at the same time. It’s such a enjoyable album to listen to throughout, but also at the same time so inspirational to hear four of the greatest Jazz musicians who ever lived at the very top of their game. We have Mr. Brubeck to thank for 1) having the guts to introduce a whole new range of sophisticated rhythmic concepts in Jazz in the 50’s and 60’s, and 2) putting together such a fine ensemble to help him realise these musical innovations. The music world is a greater place for it.

Today and in the days to come, I personally celebrate the life and music of Dave Brubeck. Without him, I would not have known about drummer, Joe Morello, who became a huge inspiration for me. Thank you Mr. Brubeck for all that you’ve done for modern music. It’s our responsibility now to see to it that your great work will not fade into obscurity but will serve as much needed manna for all musicians of my generation and beyond, be they in Jazz or other genres.

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