Record: Time Out
Artist: The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Released: Columbia Records, 1961
Time means everything in music, and not just as it relates to rhythm. Our brain has been conditioned to hear things in predictable units of time, whether its music or any number of other things. In your earliest days, as your mother held you in her arms, she introduced you to poetic forms that would quickly become ingrained into your grey matter.
"The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold wet day."
In the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss isn't just rhyming, he's rhyming with a predictable pattern and restricting his phrases to match the rhyme. Notice that each line contains a complete thought, allowing our brain to take in each bit of information one line -- one phrase -- at a time. You didn't know it at the time, and probably your parent didn't either, but those early nursery rhymes gave you the framework that would allow you to read poetry and listen to music for the rest of your life.
Don't believe me? Dr. Seuss was just following those who had come before him. Look at the opening lines of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date..."
The poet confines each thought to a single rhymed ten-syllable line, a structure that isn't just pleasing to the ear but to the mind. A few hundred years later, Robert Frost would open The Road Not Taken like this:
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth..."
Once again, the reader quickly locks in to Frost's nine-syllable pattern, and even though he uses a relatively unconventional five-line rhyme scheme, he still gives us one idea per line.
Because songwriters are merely poets in disguise, there's more of the same when we begin listening closely to some of our favorite records.
"Picture yourself on a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes..."
Or what about this one?
"Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again..."
Maybe we expect traditional rhyming and phrasing by the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, but here's something interesting. When punk and new wave began to push against tradition in the 1970s and '80s, the songwriters still followed these patterns, whether it was the Clash...
"London calling to the faraway towns
No war is declared and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls"
Or the Ramones...
"Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours to go
I wanna be sedated
Nothin' to do, no where to go-oh
I wanna be sedated."
They might've strayed a bit from the syllable count, but the patterns are still there. Fast forward a bit and hear an angsty Kurt Cobain screaming in resistance but still following the pattern:
"With the lights out, it's less dangerous.
Here we are now, entertain us.
I feel stupid, and contagious.
Here we are now, entertain us."
More recently, and more conventionally, there's Taylor Swift...
"Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone.
I'll be waiting, all there's left to do is run.
You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess.
It's a love story, baby, just say, "Yes."
But what does all of this have to with a jazz record recorded six decades ago? Just as with poetry and song lyrics -- and perhaps specifically because of poetry and song lyrics -- there is a clear set of expectations that every listener brings to every piece of music.
If you've ever looked at a piece of sheet music, you've noticed the time signature, a type of legend for the map of the musical journey that's laid out on the lines that follow. The most traditional time signature is 4/4, which means that every measure has four beats, and each of those beats is a quarter note. Some genres of music have become synonymous with different time signatures -- waltzes are in 3/4, marches are often in 6/8 -- but almost every jazz record ever recorded is in the standard 4/4 with the "phrasing" sitting at two or four measures.
To explain what that means, let's go back to the Simon and Garfunkel lines mentioned above. Sing them to yourself and pay attention to the phrasing.
"Hello darkness my old friend...
I've come to talk with you again..."
Each line is predictable, not just in rhythm (they cheat the first syllable of the second line) but in the length of the phrase (and added space in between) which stretches across two measures. It's comfortable.
The beauty of Dave Brubeck's Time Out is that it's completely uncomfortable. The title of the record is a direct announcement that he isn't playing by the rules anymore, and the opening thirty seconds of the first track on side one, "Blue Rondo a la Turk," played in a frenetic 9/8 is intriguing and fascinating precisely because it goes against every nursery rhyme, every sonnet, and every pop song we've ever heard. We bob our heads or snap our fingers and tap our toes naturally when a record finds its rhythm, or rather when we find the record's rhythm, but somehow Brubeck and his quartet flip that around.
We certainly feel the rhythm, but almost as soon as we find it and begin confidently nodding along, it flits away as Brubeck dives into something new. Most of the songs on this record switch back and forth between two or more time signatures, almost always racing ahead at breakneck speed with Brubeck at the wheel like a Formula 1 driver frantically switching gears.
The result is one of the most famous and most critically acclaimed records in American history. The third track, "Take Five," is possibly the most recognizable jazz tune ever recorded, and its unconventional 5/4 time seems to be constantly pushing us forward. We're so used to hearing the standard four-beat phrase that the extra note in each bar is delightfully uncomfortable, like an unexpected gift in every measure.
I don't know how much my father ever thought about any of this as he listened to this record, and there's something to be said for disregarding all of it and just enjoying the music, but I'm certain he knew that this was like nothing else in his collection. The great contradiction of the genre is that jazz is rooted steadfastly in tradition but also ingrained with a spirit of improvisation and experimentation. Later in the 1960s Charles Mingus would overlap songs and John Coltrane would experiment with "sheets of sound;" in the '70s Miles Davis would go electric.
Brubeck's decision here to break free of the most basic structure in song was more than just courageous and boundary breaking. He honored tradition by breaking tradition, and he created one of the twentieth century's most important pieces of art.
Blue Rondo a la Turk
Strange Meadow Lark
Three to Get Ready
Pick Up Sticks