Dave Brubeck Quartet

22. Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein

BrubeckFrontRecord: Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein
Artist: Dave Brubeck
Released: Columbia Records, 1961

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.


Side 1

Side 2
I Feel Pretty
A Quiet Girl

2. Jazz Goes to College

Brubeck1Record: Jazz Goes to College
Artist: The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Released: Columbia Records, 1954

The Dave Brubeck Quartet doesn't have the broader name recognition of Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but in his day, Brubeck was was seen as one of the most influential jazz musicians of his era. This particular album features tracks recorded live at three different colleges in the Midwest -- the University of Michigan, the University of Cincinnati, and Oberlin College. Even today jazz is often referred to as the first true American art form, and while the genre was largely driven by Black Americans, this is an example of white musicians making their mark and, as suggested by the locations of these performances, bringing jazz to a white audience.

There's no doubt that this was one of my father's favorite records. The jacket is worn from handling, with tape on three sides to keep it together, but there's something special on the back. Somehow jazz has developed an aura of academic sophistication that can feel almost exclusionary at times. You don't have to study rock and roll, you just feel it. No one ever says, "I don't get pop music." But no genre of music invites investigation like jazz. 

I noticed this when I was younger and started buying jazz CDs, mostly repackaged titles that my father had owned on vinyl. In addition to the remastered music, these CDs always came along with exhaustive liner notes with recording history and artist biographies. I devoured them. But it turns out this is an old practice. On the back of this album jacket is a 2,000-word essay by producer George Avakian. This isn't something written from an historical perspective, but a contemporary review explaining the strengths of the musicians on the record and giving in-depth analysis of each song. "These recordings bubble with exuberance," he writes; "they swing like mad, they are packed with fantastic ideas, they exhibit an incredible cohesion among four sympathetic musicians of consummate skill." Later he explains the importance of improvisation, not just in general but specifically on this record. "The improvisation on harmony and rhythm, as well as melody, goes well beyond what jazz musicians usually have done." It's a master class.

Again, it isn't hard to imagine my father lounging on a Sunday afternoon, reading and re-reading Avakian's essay with Brubeck's cool jazz playing in the background. Saxophonist Paul Desmond carries the melody, drummer Joe Dodge and bassist Bob Bates keep the rhythm, Brubeck himself jumps back and forth on piano, and my father's toe taps along. It isn't hard to imagine at all. 


Side 1
Balcony Rock
Out of Nowhere
Le Souk

Side 2
Take the "A" Train
The Song Is You
Don't Worry 'Bout Me
I Want to Be Happy