Jazz Review



Gearing Up with the Brubeck Boys in Gate City

September 12, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:


Brubeck. The name carries a certain weight and, especially for folks of a certain age, it conjures up diverse memories. Early on, in some quarters, he was known as "the white guy who played jazz, for heaven's sake" - which turned out to be true, figuratively and literally, too. When his quartet burst onto the scene with the groundbreaking Time Out album, which contained "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk," jazz was forever changed. But a bit of digging reveals that it wasn't an overnight thing - Dave B. had made his first records - with an octet - as early as 1946, so there were 13 years of club dates before Time Out . He paid his dues and then some. But Time Out captured the general public's imagination, and in many respects his "career" can be said to have begun then. Surely "Take Five" is among the most recognizable tunes in the long history of music, so it's hardly surprising that it was the last piece performed in Greensboro on September 12 as Music for a Great Space launched its 2003-4 season with a visit by bassist and trombonist Chris Brubeck and drummer Dan Brubeck, augmented by some outstanding local talent. That "local talent" included pianist John Salmon, a classically-trained master of the keyboard whose performances (and recordings) of music by Brubeck Père have broken new ground in ways that parallel the Master's own early work, his UNCG colleague, guitarist Mark Mazzatenta, and Craig Whittaker, who's paid his dues, too - he was Professor of Saxophone and Coordinator of Jazz Studies at UNCG till 1999.

The venue was Christ United Methodist Church, on Holden Road. We weren't alone in grousing that a church - a Methodist church - may not have been an ideal place for such an event, but as the evening unfolded, we didn't miss the smokes or the drinks, and it's true that there was a whole lot of heavy communing going on, both on the "stage" and in the pews.

The program got underway with a pre- Time Out Brubeck tune, "Bossa Nova U.S.A.," that told us much about the evolution of jazz: when it was first issued, this was a 2'24" cut, but in G'boro, 'twas expanded to ten inspiring and constantly engaging minutes as the five artists took their time and their several solo moments in the sun. (We found it amusing that the profs and ex-prof tended to use charts, surely for cues alone, while the Brubecks rarely if ever did....) That music is a family enterprise was soon made manifest - Chris Brubeck's "We're Still in Love after all these Years," "Bullwinkle's Revenge," "Easy for You to Pray," and "Parade de Funk" demonstrated, in turn, that creativity and innovation didn't stop with Dave B. - these wildly diverse tunes, dressed out in fine style and with often dazzling improvisations, seemed, in this context, natural and reassuring extensions of Papa's all-embracing sounds. Along the way, there were brief remarks - from Salmon, whose wizardry on classical concert platforms has earned him bravos in Greensboro and beyond, and from Chris B., who explained some of his titles. The opening half ended with DB's "Cassandra," available in a 1979 recording about half the length of the one played on Holden Road. By this point, the joint was, as Fats Waller opines on one of his singles, "jumpin'."

Part two began with Salmon's "Congo," a bold tune, strikingly embroidered, that pointed up the pianist's dual life, purveying the classics by day and, by night, well.... This number was admirably positioned in terms of the program itself, coming on the heels of a ravishing DB number and preceding four more - "In your Own Sweet Way," "Softly as the Morning Sunrise," that aforementioned "Blue Rondo," and - for the grand finale - "Take Five." Those who haven't been playing Brubeck records recently were treated to quite a show as this part of the concert unfolded, for these are great tunes, and Chris and Dan are great players, steeped in the "tradition," and Salmon and Co. brought massive doses of both "authenticity" and informed study to the mix. If you closed your eyes, you felt the Master's presence - in all the younger masters, in the music, and in the venue, too. These were expansive readings of classic and classy numbers that projected a sense of "chamber music" - and more - in all the best senses. There were lots of wonderful solos, and the ensemble sections were first rate examples of polished musicianship, too. The sound was never too loud for the space, but it filled the sanctuary nicely. Some found it hard to sit still. Some didn't even try to do so. The audience's responses grew in intensity and duration as the evening progressed. "Take Five" wandered pretty far afield, veering off into quasi-impressionism, and at times we wondered if - like a wayward boomerang - it was ever going to come back, but it did so with a vengeance, and at the end the place erupted with applause. The capacity crowd, surely boosted by two previews (extra chairs were brought in to accommodate all the people), was loath to let 'em go, but as someone near us said, "After 'Take Five,' what else can they do?" Good point!*

Brubeck fans may wish to know that a 2 CD set from Telarc named Classical Brubeck - featuring DB in a host of his own "serious" works -"Beloved Son," Pange Lingua Variations, "Voice of the Holy Spirit," and "Regret," with the London Symphony Orchestra and various UK-based singers and choirs - has begun to turn up in area emporia - assuming one can find one that stocks classical or jazz.... The number is 80621, and it's being sold as a 2-fer, priced as one CD. This provides still more proof, if proof were still needed, of Dave Brubeck's great versatility - he's perhaps the greatest "crossover" artist of our time. (I trust readers will indulge this personal note that amplifies the previous claim: this scribe met the person who was to become his spouse at a Brubeck concert in Chapel Hill 38 years ago today, the day this review is being posted - and three years later, she participated in the first performance - it was a pre-premiere outing, if memory serves - of Brubeck's oratorio, Light in the Wilderness , also in Chapel Hill. That score, one of several sacred works by DB, is infused with jazz idioms, of course, but it's a powerful "classical" piece, too, and it richly merits revival. And given this tradition, it's clear that a church - even a Methodist church - wasn't such a bad choice for a venue, after all....)

Music for a Great Space's season continues on Sunday, October 19, with a concert by Trio con Brio (of FSU) at UNCG; see our series tab for details.

*Note: We were reminded by a great old jazzman on 1/30/04 that Brubeck was not the composer of "Take Five" - it is by Paul Desmond....