There are a lot of reasons why I like this record. First of all, it's the Dave Brubeck Quartet, one of the more well known groups in jazz history, one of the most important groups in the Cool Jazz movement, and possibly the single most famous jazz group to emerge from California. Two years before this record, Brubeck released Time Out, which features "Take Five," the best selling jazz single of all time.
Cool jazz is about what you'd expect -- a smoother, more relaxed response to the big band and bebop era that immediately preceded it. While bebop gets your fingers snapping and your toe tapping until you had just have to get out on the dance floor with your best girl, cool jazz is... cool. It's the soundtrack to an evening of best friends sitting around a table sharing stories, the clinking of glasses gently blending into the rhythm and melody of the music coming from the corner of the room.
It should be no surprise, then, that cool jazz led naturally into West Coast jazz, which gave birth to Dave Brubeck. The quartet's work is instantly recognizable, thanks mainly to the signature style of saxophonist Paul Desmond, who spends so much time playing in the upper register of his alto that the listener can be excused for mistaking it for a soprano. There is no other band that sounds like this one.
On this particular record, you get more than just Brubeck and his quartet. I've heard of Leonard Bernstein, but I only know two things about him: first, he was an American composer and conductor; second, I've screamed his name countless times when it comes up in the third verse of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." And if I'm being honest, I probably knew nothing about the the former when I first came across the R.E.M. song during my freshman year of college.
One the first side of the album, Bernstein conducts his New York Philharmonic Orchestra along with the Dave Brubeck Quartet as they play four pieces written by Brubeck's brother, Howard Brubeck. As we've seen in some of the other crossover records I've written about here, the orchestra stays true to the written score, while the quartet has the freedom to improvise and explore the themes that Brubeck's brother lays out for them.
The relationship is reversed on side two, with the quartet on their own playing four pieces from Bernstein's most well-known work, West Side Story, and one from Wonderful Town. The recognizable melodies drift in and out occasionally, reminding the listener of the source material, but the improvisation makes this is a work worthy of standing alongside Bernstein's original.
Is it cool? Without a doubt.
I Feel Pretty
A Quiet Girl