Brubeck at 84

Dave Brubeck, touring at eight-four as if he were twenty-four, is in California—momentarily. Saturday night at eight, he will play in Sacramento at the Radisson Hotel Grove Amphitheater with his quartet (Bobby Militello, alto saxophone; Michael Moore, bass; Randy Jones, drums). A few weeks ago at Carnegie Hall, during the JVC Jazz Festival Newport, Brubeck began noodling one of his introductions designed to mystify his sidemen. It is one thing for a pianist to play an obscure introduction to a piece in the band’s repertoire. Erroll Garner made a specialty of it. It is quite another to offer an inscrutable introduction to a song the band has never played. Few leaders outside the bailiwick of free jazz would take that chance in a major concert, but I have often seen Brubeck do it. At World Series time a couple of years ago, he sprang “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” on the quartet. Once they figured out what the boss was pitching, they knocked it out of the park—er—theater.
At Carnegie, it began to dawn on Militello, Moore and Jones that Brubeck was slyly unveiling “Sleep,” a 1923 chestnut by Earl Lebieg that for years was the theme song of Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. Although a few jazz musicians, including Benny Carter and Tommy Dorsey, recorded it, “Sleep” hardly became a staple of the repertoire. I’d bet that most jazz players don’t know it exists. The Brubeck group had certainly never played it together, but Militello, Moore and Jones were just old enough to have it lurking in their consciousnesses. Once the puzzlement subsided, grins appeared on the sidemens’ faces. They exchanged glances, took a simultaneous deep breath and dove in. “Sleep” is not “Giant Steps” in the chord changes department. To call the song simple may be upgrading it. The structure and melody are basic—two sixteen-bar sections that are nearly identical. But this was a demonstration of the truth of the Sy Oliver-Trummy Young maxim, ‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That’Cha Do It). The piece developed momentum, good cheer and, ultimately, an intensity that captivated the audience. It was the hit of the evening, and it was no mere novelty. It was thoroughly creative music making.
I was standing backstage next to the tenor saxophonist Harry Allen. As a member of John Pizzarrelli’s band, he was about to follow Brubeck. We listened and watched on monitors, and Allen said, “Can you believe the way these guys are swinging?”
In addition to springing surprises with simple tunes, Brubeck continues his complex older ways. He works in time signatures, polyrhythms and polytonalities that, after a half-century of his pioneering them in jazz, few other musicians have tackled, let alone mastered. One who has them comfortably in mind and under his fingers is Joe Gilman, a pianist who might be much better known as a player if he didn’t devote himself primarily to education. Gilman is one of the teachers at the Brubeck Institute Summer Colony for gifted young jazz players and a professor at American River College in California. He can not only play Brubeck’s demanding music, he can also explain it, as he does in a five-and-a-half-minute radio piece produced by Paul Conley of KXJZ in Sacramento. You can hear it by clicking here and then clicking on the “listen” icon on the Capitol Public Radio page.

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