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IT'S ABOUT TIME: DAVE BRUBECK

It's About Time: Dave Brubeck - Fred Hall Rest In Peace, Mr. Brubeck, and thank you for the music (12/6/1920- 12/5/2012)The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s most successful single, Take Five (first recording July 1, 1959), evokes a feeling of sultry urban mystique and sophistication, so it was a bit surprising to read this musical genius spent his first seventeen years in rural northern California, working as a ranch hand. Despite the modest and somewhat isolated upbringing, Brubeck had the benefit of an extensive musical education from his mother, who had studied music theory at a university level, and insisted on all her children learning piano. To her delight, Dave was a natural on the keyboard, and spent much of his free time playing. Between his innate talents and what his mother could teach him, Brubeck developed an intuition for composition which changed the face of mid-20th century music. Check out this great article, which includes (midway down) an examination of how Brubeck's influence can be seen in The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and I Want to Hold Your Hand. In recognition of his contributions, Brubeck was the first jazz artist ever featured on the cover of Rockefeller propaganda rag “TIME” magazine on November 8, 1954. So what’s so special about Dave Brubeck? You’ll find a clue in the book’s title It’s About Time, and all the chapter titles Time for Family, Time for the Big Time, etc... as well as his most popular record titles Time Out, Time Further Out and Time In. All this temporal punnery refers to Brubeck's hallmark style of adventurous rhythms and time signatures. This deserves some explanation, but I’m not the guy to do it, being very much a musical novice myself. Thank God for TEH INTERWEBS. Here’s a slightly crazy online lesson in time signatures. Here’s one that’s a little better. You don’t have to care about that stuff, if you don’t want to, but what you should realize is that in the early 1950’s, when Brubeck and his pals first started tinkering with unusual beat patterns, they were messing with an industry standard. The majority of popular music written in the first half of the twentieth century was in 4/4 time, also known as “standard time”. This was especially true during Brubeck’s formative years, in the period of Big Band and Swing, because those tunes are all meant to be danced to, and the popular dances of their day relied on 4/4 rhythm to make the choreography blend naturally with the music. The marriage of time signatures and dances is seen in other styles as well; waltzes are almost all in 3/4 time, and so is a lot of Country music and its dances... which is why it should be easier to dance the Waltz to a Country ballad than to Swing. Here's an experiment for you: if you know the Waltz, try dancing it to Take Five. It will probably be pretty tough to keep your steps, because Take Five is in 5/4. These forays into unconventional time signatures represent as much of a departure from the prevailing musical orthodoxy as, say, modern art is from classical realism. Perhaps this is why Neil Fujita’s abstract art is featured on the Time Out album cover:Another fantastic track from this album is Blue Rondo A La Turk. It’s played in 9/8, meaning nine eighth notes per measure, arranged in a 2,2,2,3 pattern. Dave wrote it while the Quartet was touring Turkey and he was commiserating with a local jazz musician with the stage name “June Eight”. The time signature actually comes from an old Turkish melody. This wasn’t the last time Brubeck would draw inspiration from non-Western influences. His open mind vis-a-vis non-Western music served him well; Time Out became the first jazz album ever to go gold, and remains to this day a revered classic of jazz, and a milestone in 20th century popular culture.Not to belabor my point, but let's listen to one more track. This is from the 1961 follow-up to Time Out, called Time Further Out. This number is called Unsquare Dance. It’s written in 7/4 time. I hope you check out the link, because it's got a cute dance to go with it, written especially for 7/4, and which never fails to remind me of Audrey Hepburn's dance in "Funny Face". Oh dear, Audrey.The biographical aspect of the book is okay- not great. Some of the writing here is lifeless, which is why I only gave it three stars. You get a lot of anecdotes about the early years, when Dave and saxophonist Paul Desmond played at the iconic Blackhawk lounge in San Francisco throughout the 1940’s. By 1951, Brubeck’s solidified his association with Desmond, as well as drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright, who would form the true core of the Dave Brubeck Quartet (DBQ) -although the nominal "Quartet" would go through a number of confusing personnel shuffles over the years, ultimately involvling like ten or twelve assorted musicians. The group’s golden age is usually cited as 1951-1967, however they reformed several times for reunion tours. In their sixteen years touring, they enjoyed success unprecedented for a jazz group, and author Fred Hall extensively documents their globetrotting to such unlikely places as Baghdad, Pakistan and India in the 1950’s, Poland and Japan in the 1960’s and the Soviet Union in 1981. From early 50's on, particularly after getting a record contract with Columbia Records, Brubeck collaborated regularly with jazz luminaries like Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong Chet Baker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. The book also does a good job recognizing how important Brubeck’s wife Iola was in his career. The two met at The College of the Pacific in 1937, and frequently performed together on student radio (Iola on vocals). They married right before Dave had to leave for World War II. When he returned, they endured some lean years. Dave got work where he could find it, often driving hours to do short, low-paying gigs at small clubs. It was Iola who elevated Dave's career, when she hit on the idea of soliciting college bookings for the DBQ. Jazz performances on the college circuit were unheard of back then, but times were changing. "Beat" culture was catching on, and there was an interest among students to hear jazz. Iola's idea was an unmitigated success, and provided material for Dave's first Colombia record, Jazz Goes to College:The college tours not only provided steady work and paid the bills, but introduced Brubeck to new audiences, expanding the fan base for jazz overall.While most of this book is upbeat, there are a few somber points. One tragedy I hadn't known before was Brubeck's 1951 diving accident, which resulted in a spinal fracture and permanent nerve damage. It nearly ended his career, and he had to change some of his piano technique to adapt. He continues to tour even today (in his 90's) and still has pain related to that injury. The other dark element is Paul Desmond. Dave has only good things to say about Paul, and marvels at an almost magical intuition the two shared for each other's playing, which allowed them to improvise some incredible numbers, which are captured in DBQ's live recordings. On the other hand, Desmond was moody, insecure, and immoderate with alcohol, smoking and women. He was frequently difficult to work with, and his personal dramas interfered with the rest of the group's performance. He died of lung cancer in 1977, which seems to mark an end to the most prolific and creative portion of Brubeck's career. The later years were less interesting to read about. Dave enjoys richly-deserved material success and international recognition, and three of his sons join him on tour. The book ends in 1992, when it was first published. From what I read, Brubeck and his boys continue touring to this day. Overall, I'm glad I read this, just to get a better sense of the man behind this amazing music. As mentioned above, the writing was a bit tepid in parts. If you want to learn more about Brubeck, you might be better off seeking out features in jazz magazines like DownBeat or Jazzwise. More importantly: check out his music! If I could buy every GoodReader just one CD, it would be Time Out.