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Box Set Brubeck: For All Time

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Popularity is double-edged, and perhaps no jazz artist exemplifies this better than Dave Brubeck.
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Popularity is double-edged, and perhaps no jazz artist exemplifies this better than Dave Brubeck. The unparalleled success of his classic quartets with Paul Desmond, which expanded the market for jazz into colleges and the homes of suburbia, often obscured his very real musical innovations. The ever-increasing professional sheen of Brubeck's 60s albums for Columbia, his interest in writing for orchestras, the quartet's base in traditional swing rather than bop, and their largely white, middle-class fan base have all led some to brand Brubeck as a lightweight, or worse yet, an 'entertainer'. Although there is a grain of truth to this characterization, extended exposure to Brubeck's best work argues otherwise.

Columbia Records' long-overdue reissue program of classic Brubeck albums has gone some way towards rehabilitating Dave's reputation. The latest release is a 5-CD box set entitled For All Time , which brings together all of the classic quartet's albums devoted to exploring unusual time signatures and rhythmic combinations: Time Out (1959) and Time Further Out (1961), which were already available in remastered editions, along with three records that have never appeared on CD domestically; Countdown: Time In Outer Space (1962), Time Changes (1964), and Time In (1965). While Brubeck fans will rejoice in the availability of these latter CDs, they are likely to be disappointed by the box as a whole. Unlike Columbia's exemplary Miles Davis sets, which included extensive new liner notes (in some cases almost book-length) and unreleased material in a quantity exceeding that of the original albums, For All Time simply re-packages the already-available editions of Time Out and Time Further Out with the separately packaged new CDs in a slipcase. Fans hoping for never-before-heard outtakes of classic tunes such as 'Take Five', 'Blue Rondo a la Turk', or 'It's a Raggy Waltz' will not find them here. Nor will they gain any new perspective on the importance of these albums or insight into what went into their making, despite some very brief new notes from Dave. Indeed, it is unclear just for whom Columbia is releasing such a configuration: any serious Brubeck fan will already have purchased the first two albums (many several times over), while the casual jazz listener will be unlikely to shell out for a 5-disc set. Since Columbia will almost certainly release the later three albums singly after the box has had its run (as they did with all of Miles' records), most listeners will probably wait until then to pick them up.

But in spite of Columbia's missed opportunity, the release of For All Time is welcome not only for the 3 'new' albums, but for the opportunity to listen to and consider all of Brubeck's timely adventures in one bundle. These 5 albums abundantly demonstrate his many merits as well as his shortcomings. Brubeck's explorations beyond the basic 4/4 beat are at the heart of his musical life, and certainly represent his greatest contribution to modern jazz. With this music, he and his bandmates developed complexities of meter and rhythm that are every bit as ingenious as those of other artists that are considered to be more 'authentic'. That so few people listen carefully enough to hear just how much is going on in this music is testament to how effortless the DBQ made it sound, and to how good Brubeck was at wedding these rhythmic oddities to memorable melodies in a way that still swung. 'Take Five' is the 'Stairway to Heaven' of jazz; overplayed to such a degree that it has become a clich', used or aped in countless commercials and ubiquitously thumping along in coffeehouses worldwide. But a listen with fresh ears will reveal how ingenious, how radical (this was 1959 !), and how utterly compelling the best of this music is.

Time Out is so well known, and so likely to be already owned by any reader of All About Jazz, that little comment on the original concept album is necessary here. Suffice it to say that anyone not familiar with this album should get it immediately, and that those who have taken it for granted should give it a careful new listen. The shock of the pounding 9/8 opening section of 'Blue Rondo A La Turk' giving way, almost under duress, to the deep blues pocket of the song's middle; the loveliness of 'Strange Meadowlark''s melody masking the subtle internal rhythmic shifts; the sheer, monolithic funkiness of 'Take Five''s piano vamp underneath Joe Morello's jaw-dropping drum solo; the sprightly alterations of 3/4 and 4/4 in 'Three To Get Ready'; these and more combine to make Time Out simply one of the modern era's greatest jazz records, and one of the greatest albums , with all the cohesiveness and balance that suggests, in popular music of any genre. That Columbia did not see fit to include additional material from these sessions is thus all the more painful.

Time Further Out appeared in 1961 and already the title, and the fact that Brubeck did a 'sequel' at all, provides an opening for those who question Dave's jazz bona fides ; after all, it's hard to imagine seeing 'Kind of Bluer', or 'Another Love Supreme' in the racks. But the quality of this record, constructed as a blues suite 'inspired' by Joan Miro's paintings, nearly matches its predecessor. The opener, 'It's A Raggy Waltz' is a joy from beginning to end, its relatively conventional 3/4 meter irregularly bunched up by ragtime-like accents. 'Bluette', a Chopin-like waltz with some of Desmond's loveliest playing on record, features some nice arco playing by Wright. 'Far More Blue/Far More Drums' is a 5/4 blues followed by a drum solo that shows just how far this group has come in two years; no longer does Brubeck need to hang onto a steady vamp to keep everyone on track in this meter, and Morello's solo, while not as epochal as 'Take Five's', is considerably longer and more assertive. Hand claps, a bass ostinato, Morello's drum-rims, and Brubeck's rollicking piano hoedown add up to 'Unsquare Dance', a cute idea in a decidedly oblong 7/4. 'Blue Shadows in the Street' closes the original album with an evocative tune in an interestingly-grouped 9/8. Two bonus tracks, the pleasing but inessential 'Slow and Easy' and the 1963 Carnegie Hall version of 'Raggy Waltz', are the same as on the already-available CD'again, one wonders what other treasures Columbia is hiding in the vaults.

The following year's Countdown: Time In Outer Space is probably the weakest of the 5 albums: again, a kitschy title (referencing John Glenn's contemporaneous space flight), and a format that too-closely follows its predecessor. That said, the taint of formula doesn't take away from some great music on the album. The opening title track is a good example of the DBQ's sleight-of-hand; the group rolls on this boogie-woogie so smoothly that it takes a couple of listens before one realizes that it's in 10/8. 'Eleven Four''s prosaic title belies one of Desmond's best compositions, a soaring theme that swings breezily even in this most awkward of meters. 'Why Phyllis', a blues waltz, is a charming bass feature for Wright, but 'Castilian Blues/Castilian Drums' is yet another 5/4 blues-drums sequence and is not unduly inspiring, Morello's intruiging bare-hand solo notwithstanding. A new version of Brubeck's 1956 3 beats-against-4 arrangement of 'Someday My Prince Will Come' may initially seem a pointless retread, but comparison with the earlier version shows how well the group plays together by this point. Desmond's solo is simply astounding, one of those that is so perfectly constructed and swinging that it almost constitutes a new tune. The album also includes four tunes from a ballet that Brubeck was writing at the time, and they are nice and swinging without being terribly remarkable. Much better is the single bonus track, an impromptu Brubeck-Wright blues entitled 'Fatha' (without explanation in the liner notes, which fail to even mention the track)— complete with enthusiastic exhortations from an unidentified visitor, presumably then-labelmate Earl 'Fatha' Hines himself. If Dave had chosen to release some of this looser, less polished but more exciting material at the time, perhaps his reputation would have benefitted.

Thankfully, the now-tired 'time' album formula is broken by the latter two records. The first 4 tracks of Time Changes constitute some of the best music in the box set, and exhibit a new, tougher style that Brubeck developed in the late 60s and early 70s. 'Iberia', a propulsive waltz, features an astonishing piano solo that moves from scrabbling free runs not too far off Cecil Taylor into a 4-against-3 saloon chorus before coming back to the melody. As on a good deal of the DBQ's later, harder-edged material, Desmond, a lyrical player at heart, lays out. He returns to lovely effect with a great solo in 'Unisphere', a jaunty theme in 10/4 with some trademark piano/sax counterpoint improvisation. 'Shim Wah', a rare Joe Morello composition, is a funky 3/4 tune on which Desmond appears only to state the melody, clearing the stage for an amazing Brubeck solo in which Dave's left hand rocks in offbeat accents between two dissonant chords like a stuck phonograph needle while his right breaks off vaguely Oriental shards of melodic glass. This solo, in which Dave plays the piano like the percussion instrument it actually is, is followed by a drum solo that conversely is almost melodic in its flow. But even better is the understandably brief 'World's Fair', in a tricky 13/4 that nevertheless manages to conjure up a 1920s stop-time feel under Desmond's deliciously bluesy solo. For the DBQ's unique ability to meld the avant-garde with the down-home and make it all instantly enjoyable, there is no better example. Unfortunately, the album falters after this blazing start. 'Cable Car' is a feeble rewrite of 'The Trolley Song', complete with overly-literal cymbal bells tolling. And while 'Elementals' a piece for jazz combo and orchestra that filled up the entire side two of the original record, is intermittently interesting and features some lovely Desmond, even repeated listens suggest it is more a messy hodgepodge of baroque brass, Stravinsky-esque winds, and Neal Hefti big band charts than any new 'third stream' form of music. The bonus track, a brief quartet version of the 'Elementals' theme is, however, beautiful and ironically (or maybe expectedly?) says more in three minutes than the orchestral version does in 17.

The final album in the box, 1965's Time In , is perhaps the strongest record (barring Time Out ) in the set. While not abandoning his bread-and-butter style, Dave seems to have absorbed some influences from his hard bop and New Thing contemporaries, and the album feels more serious than its predecessors. His slightly more edgy tone is matched by Morello's increasingly muscular drumming, captured by Teo Macero here in beautiful 30th Street Studio sound. 'Lost Waltz' is a clever idea; a rubato piano intro in 3 gives way to the group's double-time rendition in 4; as the title indicates, the waltz never returns. 'Softly, William, Softly' is one of Brubeck's best ballads, melancholy but utterly unsentimental. Desmond's solo is characteristically graceful, and Dave's is more fragile than he is usually given credit for. The best tune on the album is the title track; this is an ideal blindfold test for your favorite Brubeck sceptic, since it lacks Desmond's instantly recognizable presence. The 3/4 tune is sharply angular and winding, more reminiscent of something on a Wayne Shorter Blue Note than a DBQ album. Dave's solo begins with a crabbed, low-register run and continues through a couple Monk-like and Hancock-ish moments before a gospelly 4-on-3 pattern identifies the author. Although 'Forty Days' is an excerpt from one of Brubeck's liturgical works, it doesn't sound like it'its 5/4 meter and pulsing bass ostinato place it fully within the group's idiom. 'Traveling Blues', better known in a vocal version with Carmen McRae, features some nice Desmond choruses, and 'He Done Her Wrong', an adaptation of 'Frankie and Johnny', is an irresistible 2:14 of gospel blues fervor, featuring probably the greatest tambourine break (seriously!) ever recorded. The album closes with 'Cassandra', an impeccable swinger with some great playing by all four members of the quartet and some barely noticeable alternations of 3/4 and 4/4. Three bonus tracks are appended: 'Rude Old Man', a delightfully humorous, bass-heavy tune by Wright; 'Who Said That?', an unremarkable slow blues; and 'Watusi Drums', a 6/4 groover (strangely, without a drum solo) that recycles 'Pick Up Sticks''s bass pattern, bringing the box set back to where it began.

The best thing about For All Time is that it brings back three albums featuring the classic DBQ in their prime. While it's nice to have all of the 'time' experiments in one place, the lack of any work-in-progress material or in-depth liner note reassessment makes the box less illuminating than it might have been. And adventurous as the material often is, the slick professionalism of the quartet's studio work can be numbing after long exposure'contrary to their 'cool' reputation, this was a group that could cook in a live setting, as the recently re-released At Carnegie Hall album attests. Time In is essential for any Brubeck fan, and most will want the other two new releases as well; whether it's worth acquiring yet another copy of Time Out in order to hear the new CDs now rather than later is the question. Despite the missed opportunity to compile something really special, Columbia should be praised for continuing to release well-packaged, great-sounding remasters of Brubeck's best work for the label. The casual fan who explores Dave's discography outside of the 'hits' will be rewarded with some wonderful, and underrated, jazz.

Track Listing

Disc: 1 ( Time Out )

  1. Blue Rondo A La Turk
  2. Strange Meadowlark
  3. Take Five
  4. Three To Get Ready
  5. Kathy's Waltz
  6. Everybody's Jumpin'
  7. Pick Up Sticks

Disc: 2 ( Time Further Out )

  1. It's A Raggy Waltz
  2. Bluette
  3. Charles Mathew Halleujah
  4. Far More Blue
  5. Far More Drums
  6. Maori Blues
  7. Unsquare Dance
  8. Bru's Boogie Woogie
  9. Blue Shadows In The Street
  10. Slow And Easy
  11. It's A Raggy Waltz (Live At Carnegie Hall)

Disc: 3 ( Countdown: Time In Outer Space )

  1. Countdown
  2. Eleven Four
  3. Why Phillis Waltz
  4. Someday My Prince Will Come
  5. Castilian Blues
  6. Castilian Drums
  7. Fast Life
  8. Waltz Limp
  9. Three's A Crowd
  10. Dance Duet
  11. Back To Earth
  12. Fatha

Disc: 4 ( Time Changes )

  1. Iberia
  2. Unisphere
  3. Shim Wha
  4. World's Fair
  5. Cable Car
  6. Theme From Elementals
  7. Elementals

Disc: 5 ( Time In )

  1. Lost Waltz
  2. Softly, William, Softley
  3. Time In
  4. Forty Days
  5. Travellin' Blues
  6. He Done Her Wrong
  7. Lonesome
  8. Cassandra
  9. Rude Old Man
  10. Who Said That?
  11. Watusi Drums

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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