Legendary Brubeck returns to Finney Chapel
Those expecting to hear jazz pianist Dave Brubeck play a laundry list of old standards in his Finney performance this past Oct. 4 went home disappointed. For the receptive listener, though, hearing the 82-year-old jazz master bring life into new works and reworked favorites reaffirmed his musical genius and proved that he has not lost a beat over five decades of concertizing.
Brubeck is a major innovator of jazz, instrumental in bringing it to a wider audience — especially college students — during the ’50s and ’60s. Even at a ripe old age he is still on the road, with concerts booked years from now that sell out months in advance. His Oberlin concert sold out Finney Chapel’s 1,200 seats in 17 minutes.
One might expect a musician as old and financially successful as Brubeck, who still plays in the same quartet configuration he always has, to present a concert of greatest hits and comfortable crowdpleasers. I am happy to say that over the course of the evening I noticed the grimaces of several 50-year-olds sitting next to me, obviously expecting the Brubeck sound of the past. But, like any long-standing performer, Dave Brubeck has not grown complacent.
The first set ran an hour and a half and featured a mix of standards and originals, traditional and modern interpretations. The second piece, “Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Symphony Orchestra, 2nd movement,” began with a thick operatic solo piano introduction before settling into slow swing. During his bass solo, Michael Moore began playing straight with classical techniques, and drummer Randy Jones locked in with him. Brubeck began melodic accompaniment and as alto saxophonist Bobby Militello joined in, fugue ensued, building intensity into a final ritardando and overstated symphonic resolution.
Next was a Brubeck original called “London Flat, London Sharp,” an up-tempo burner with a fairly modern harmonic progression. Militello took off on a string of eighth notes right out of the starting gate, said everything he needed to say in the first few choruses, then played a few more. Brubeck, who suffers from arthritis in his wrists, seemed to have a little trouble with his own tempo and stuck to playing block chords and sequences with both hands.
Throughout the concert, Brubeck limited himself melodically, employing the stride style of early jazz and staying away from longer strings of eighth notes. The quartet closed the first set with what was essentially a free improvisation based on an old Jewish folk melody arranged as a Roman military march.
To my surprise and delight the interpretation was noticeably different than the way the first Dave Brubeck Quartet performed it on their 1959 album Time Out. Brubeck’s accompaniment was very open, as was the phrasing during the solos. Militello played out of time, spreading his lines over the bar and over the chorus, and left a lot of space for the pianist to fill. Brubeck’s solo was wonderfully dense and very hip. An extended drum solo laden with rhythmic displacement followed. After a standing ovation, Brubeck returned to play “Show Me the Way To Go Home” in easy swing, striding all the way.
Brubeck earned his reputation as a proponent and early pioneer of “West Coast” or “Cool” Jazz, essentially a more subdued, heavily classically influenced version of be-bop. Building on the innovations of contemporaries such as Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, Brubeck and saxophonist Paul Desmond improvised counterpoint and launched into fugue, all within the musical context of a jazz quartet. They emphasized intellect and interaction, but retained the groove essential to all jazz. Saturday’s concert was a resounding affirmation of these musical values.
Despite skepticism and lack of support by the Conservatory institution, the concert was a huge success and the recording (made by WOBC) was released by Fantasy Records as Jazz at Oberlin. It amazes me to listen to that album and hear the audience explode into applause at the subtlest, slightest “quote,” a musical reference to the melody of another tune made during a solo.
The recording was a landmark - one of the first live recordings of jazz in a concert setting, and one that brought Brubeck’s music to the world. In Oberlin, the performance generated tremendous excitement in jazz and spurred the creation of the Oberlin Jazz Club, which over the next 30 years helped garner support for what would become the Jazz Studies Department in the Conservatory.
Dave Brubeck’s music opened the minds and touched the souls of countless thousands over the last half-century. The honorary doctorate degree professor Donald Byrd presented to Brubeck last Friday on behalf of the Conservatory represents the immense gratitude Oberlin owes him for sharing his music with us. In the words of Dr. Byrd, himself a jazz legend, “Dave, you are the best.”