Recent Listening: The Brubeck Birthday Box

The Dave Brubeck Quartet: The Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1955-1967

Dave Brubeck turns 91 tomorrow, December 6, and Columbia Records is releasing a CD box containing all 19 of the Columbia albums that his quartet recorded in the studio. The earliest, Brubeck Time, was released in 1955 but recorded in the fall of 1954, three years after Brubeck and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond formed the quartet. The last, Anything Goes: Brubeck Plays Cole Porter, was released in 1967 a few months before the quartet ended one of the most successful runs of any band in jazz history.

A few of the albums in the box have been widely available since their initial release. They include Brubeck Time; Time Out, which contained the chart-busting “Take Five;” Brandenburg Gate Revisited; and Jazz Impressions of Japan with the enchanting minor blues “Koto Song.” Some of the other albums made brief appearances in the United States, but after the LP era were available on CD only as expensive Japanese imports that were often hard to find. Among the rarities are the Porter collection and two albums released in 1965, Angel Eyes, songs by Matt Dennis; and My Favorite Things, a set of Richard Rodgers compositions, both sublime. Also never before on CD for US release are Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A., Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Bossa Nova U.S.A., Jazz Impressions of New York, and two thematically related albums, Gone With the Wind and Southern Scene. Why have they been withheld from digital release until now? Perhaps the Sony/Columbia accountants could explain.

The problem for thrifty shoppers who want the previously unavailable CDs, of course, is that they are part of the $149.95 package and not available singly, at least for now. If you have a full shelf of Brubecks except for those gems, is it worth the expense to duplicate the others? Based on the quality of the playing in the Dennis, Rodgers and New York albums, it may be. Not having had the LPs of those albums for years, I am eagerly reabsorbing, among other highlights, the smoky “Sixth Sense” from Jazz Impressions of New York, Desmond’s jaunty solo on Dennis’s “Let’s Get Away From it All,” Brubeck and bassist Gene Wright challenging each other in serious fun on a quick romp through “Darktown Strutters Ball,” Joe Morello adapting himself to Indian finger drumming on “Calcutta Blues.”

The booklet included in the box contains tune listings and discographical information for each album, but no narrative, no essays placing the music in perspective. It has a few informal session photographs from Columbia’s 30th Street studio in Manhattan, including this one showing the quartet and, on the left, producer Teo Macero. Concert audiences rarely saw Desmond having this much fun.

The set traces Brubeck’s productive and often exhilarating years with Columbia before the quartet disbanded. It is not comprehensive. Their first album for the label, Jazz Goes to College (1954), was a concert recording, as were several other albums recorded on tour in Europe and the United States. The last of those concert recordings, from tapes in Brubeck’s collection, has just been released as Their Last Time Out. It was recorded December 26, 1967, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, almost literally on the eve of disbandment.

The two-CD set is primarily of pieces the quartet had played dozens, if not hundreds, of times. It includes a “These Foolish Things” with the quartet weaving abstractions that came naturally to Brubeck and Desmond after decades of further developing the ESP that characterized their collaborations from the beginning. It also has “La Paloma Azul,” which became a Desmond favorite in the years after the quartet broke up and he also recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet in their 1971 Christmas Eve Town Hall concert. His brief solo here reduces the piece to its harmonic essence. The sensitivity of Brubeck’s solo belies the frequent accusation that he was a keyboard basher. The Pittsburgh “Take The ‘A’ Train,” shorter than some of Brubeck’s many other recorded versions, has Morello particularly vigorous in the exchange of four-bar phrases the two always enjoyed. This “You Go to My Head” may not equal the breathtaking 1952 recording the early quartet made at Boston’s Storyville in 1952, but it has moments of fine lyricism from Desmond and intriguing rhythmic displacements by Brubeck. By this time, Morello had only to set two bars of 5/4 time in introducing “Take Five” to draw applause. Desmond’s solo on his famous composition— alternating altissimo and basso profundo phrases—includes a passage of low tones startlingly reminiscent of Earl Bostic or, perhaps, Desmond’s early inspiration Pete Brown. In all, the Pittsburgh concert is a substantial addition to the Brubeck discography.

Happy 91st birthday.

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  1. Ken Dryden says

    Russell Gloyd recently emailed me that they are working on a live quartet boxed set, tentatively scheduled for release in the fall of 2012. One thing they’ve uncovered is a lot of unissued tracks from the 1962 Concertgebouw concert.

    I wonder if the unissued Witches’ Brew session and The Riddle, both featuring clarinetist Bill Smith in place of Desmond, will ever appear on CD? I’d also love to see the dates with Gerry Mulligan reissued on CD.

  2. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    “The booklet included in the box contains tune listings and discographical information for each album, but no narrative, no essays placing the music in perspective.”

    I think the good folks @ Columbia should have had Mr. Doug Ramsey contibute to the narrative of The Birthday Box as evidenced by the fine column above!
    Looking to find “The Last Time Out” in my Xmas stocking!

  3. Duane says

    “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia”, “Jazz Impressions of New York”, and “Gone With the Wind” have all been available on CD in the US since at least the 1990’s as part of the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces series.

    I’m hoping the other albums which have not been reissued in the US before, will eventually be sold as individual discs.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Columbia/Sony/Legacy’s publicity about the Studio Albums box stresses that nine of the albums are on CD for the first time in the US. Wonder why. A lack of interdepartmental communication, perhaps.

  4. John Bolger says

    I loved your piece on Dave Brubeck.

    I attach a beautiful piece of Dave playing “Dziekuje” – meaning “Thank You” in Polish, from the album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. It was composed by Dave as a tribute to Frederic Chopin. It was broadcast live on a PBS special in June, 2000 celebrating the 300th anniversary of the invention of the piano.

    On his birthday I am sure I speak for thousands of Jazz fans around the world by saying a very special THANK YOU to Dave for a lifetime of musical enjoyment. Happy Birthday, Dave.

  5. Jim Brown says

    Studying the press release, this is Sony’s cheap way out — they have simply re-packaged all of the individual CD reissues that Columbia had produced over the years and added the ones that they had not. That means a lot of CDs, most of them only the length of the original LP. Of the 18 Columbia Brubeck CDs that I can lay my hands on, only three include one or two bonus tracks. You do, of course, get the original artwork and the original sequencing, but you also get short CDs. Another way to look at it — at the list price of $150 for the set, that’s just under $8 per CD. If this is the only way I can get the few that I’m missing, I’ll buy the set and use any duplicates as gifts for birthdays and Christmas. After all, one can never have enough of Brubeck and Desmond.

  6. Kelsey says

    This is coming about two years too late, but I recently discovered your blog post on the set of three videos featuring the Brubeck Quartet in 1956 posted on YouTube.

    If the YouTube poster truly had the correct date (March 4, 1956) then it was from a broadcast called the La Clede Musical Showcase from St. Louis, MO. I haven’t been able to figure out anything else about the broadcast, though.

  7. says

    The Pittsburgh concert? Wow, I was there with my mother (a woman of exceptional musical taste).

    I have a mental image of the Grand Ballroom at the Pittsburgh Hilton. The seating, as I remember, was wide and narrow…which meant most of the audience was off to one side or the other, and not directly in front of the quartet. We, for example, were well off to the left, facing Brubeck’s (distant) back.

    I haven’t been in that room in many years, Doug, but based on that 40-some-year-old image I’m guessing the Hilton sold so many tickets that they opened the ballroom, via the folding walls, to its maximum size.

    And I can’t wait to hear it again!

  8. marietta meister says

    Dave, i am deeply concerns from your musik, and in a strange fashion sometimes so gloomy.
    Thanks for all the musik, Dave Brubeck!. Lets take the a train.

    P.S.and thanks to Herrn Ramsey for sharing this.