Few Jazz groups have been as universally popular, and consistently popular as The Dave Brubeck Quartet. After emerging in the early 1950s, the quartet, with pianist Brubeck at the helm, had a surprisingly regular personnel, and diverse repertoire; making for an extremely attractive overall package. Although in the Cool Camp, they were astoundingly popular amongst fans of other Jazz styles, and even with non-Jazz aficionados. Recording and performing prolifically in the 1950s and 60s, Brubeck, and saxophonist Paul Desmond, crafted a distinctive, enthralling, and almost instantly recognizable aural signature.
Between 1951 and 1968 the Brubeck Quartet released over fifty albums, quite possibly more than any other Jazz group during this period. Be it their initial releases on Fantasy Records or the classic Columbia Lps, that would later display experiments in odd-meters, the quartet’s cool-yet-complex style comes through.
The earliest group of albums, from the “Jazz Goes To College” period, feature mainly standard and reveal the quartet’s signature style. Oberlin, The College of the Pacific, and The University of Michigan, were but a few of many institutions they performed at, with many concerts recorded and released commercially. Brubeck’s approach: block chords, clean melodic lines, and asymmetrical phrases, combined with Desmond’s faultless intonation, creamy tone, and tasteful, melodic invention, produced eminently pleasing results: be it “Lullaby in Rhythm,” “All The Things You Are,” “Look For The Silver Lining,” or “Stardust.” Back then, the drum chair was held by Joe Dodge or Lloyd Bates, and it was either Ron Crotty or Bob Bates on bass.
The mid fifties saw the quartet focusing more on studio recordings, having switched from Fantasy to Columbia. The sound of the quartet remained, with repertoire favoring more of Brubeck’s own compositions. “In Your Own Sweet Way,” “Audrey,” “Swing Bells,” and “Calcutta Blues,” were but a few of Dave’s own compositions performed and recorded during this period. The American Popular Song Book was still very much part of the band’s repertoire. 1955’s Brubeck Time featured “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now,” Newport 1958 saluted Duke Ellington, including “Jump For Joy,” and “’C’ Jam Blues,” and 1957’s Dave Digs Disney, is, just that, with the likes of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” and “One Song.” The treatment of these is exceptional, in that the melodies are rarely played straight, and when so feature any number of chordal substitutions beneath; yet they’re almost instantly recognizable.
By 1958 the “classic” quartet was in place with Joe Morello on drums, and Eugene Wright, bass. Beginning in 1959 with mega-hit Take Five, the quartet experimented with odd meter tunes for the next several years. When Jazz was, and still essentially is, played almost exclusively in 4/4, Brubeck and Desmond, merged complex rhythms with catchy melodic lines. “Three To Get Ready,” “Waltz Limp,” and the play-on-words “Un-Square Dance,” are but several of the numerous tunes from the quartet’s experiments with unusual meters. If that wasn’t enough, Brubeck himself pushes things further on some of these, with his own locked-hand chords in a separate beat from that of the rhythm section! While not the only group to deal with odd meters, the Dave Brubeck Quartet made it appealing to the masses.
Throughout the 1960s the quartet continued to include classics, such as St. Louis Blues,” and “Anything Goes,” in their repertoire. Other forays included Impressions Of… albums, with musical portraits of various locals, and collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, and Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, and Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, on The Real Ambassadors.
The success of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, was unusual in that it was both artistic and commercial. Perhaps due to their eschewing frenetic performance, Brubeck and Desmond created a group, and crafted a sound that was undeniably Jazz yet appealed to a wide audience. The quartet, particularly once Joe Morello was in place, showed that you could present a complex rhythmic concept without it being esoteric. Whether something as familiar as “When You Wish Upon a Star,” or the oddly appealing nature of “Eleven-Four,” one can’t help but be attracted to the recordings of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]