The Dave Brubeck Quartet & Gene Bertoncini at the Grove Park Inn
The first of Brubeck’s two sets at the Grove Park Inn didn’t begin with his frequent choice, “St. Louis Blues;” instead he opted for another great standard, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The piece was highlighted by Militello’s soulful playing, an extended solo by Moore (critic Whitney Balliett’s choice as the top jazz bassist now active, with which I’m inclined to agree), as well as a great series of chorus trading between Brubeck and Moore. The leader, who seemed in a extremely lively mood, was full of humor, particularly working in a series of brief quotes, including a snatch of “Peter and the Wolf.” The next song, “I Got Rhythm,” got well away from the expected path with some wild improvisations far beyond Gershwin’s original conception. “Theme for June,” a gorgeous melody composed by Howard Brubeck, the pianist’s late older brother, quieted things down. “Sometimes I’m Happy” is not a piece one would typically expect to hear during a Dave Brubeck concert, though he has previously recorded it. It just came to him in a flash on stage; later on, he playfully utilized Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” as a vamp in support of Militello’s solo. Although Brubeck may not have been the first to record “Someday My Prince Will Come” (though he beat Miles Davis to the punch by several years), it has long been a part of his concert repertoire. Only the sharpest fans picked up on its theme as the pianist quietly introduced it in a somewhat stripped setting. Then he launched into his buoyant up tempo arrangement of its theme, which remains fresh after hundreds of performances and several recordings, again working in a number of quick quotes for fun, including a salute to his old friend, the late Gerry Mulligan, with a few bars from Mulligan’s “Jeru.”
During intermission, Brubeck was amazed when someone commented backstage that he hadn’t performed anything from his vast library of original compositions during the first set. After a discussion with his musicians, he had yet another surprise up his sleeve. He announced that they going to be playing his “Elementals,” an extended work for jazz quartet and orchestra at an upcoming concert, so he decided that they could rehearse a portion of it on stage, a piece he had never played with just the quartet. “Just the two middle pages,” he said, “because the rest is too hard. I oughta know, because I wrote it.” The audience wasn’t disappointed at all. Next was a new composition, “Elegy,” written for Swedish journalist Randi Hultin, who befriended many touring jazz musicians by hosting them in her home. The piece was written in her honor and originally titled “Blues for Randi.” Hultin, who was extremely ill with cancer, vowed to attend its debut performance at an Oslo concert after seeing the sheet music, but died before it took place. This very mournful instrumental evokes Brubeck’s sense of loss of a good friend, with Militello’s lyrical flute and Moore’s delicious arco bass helping to convey the mood. This was one of four songs heard in Asheville which are also a part of the upcoming “Park Avenue South” CD.
For some reason, many writers insist on referring to Dave Brubeck as “West Coast Jazz” or a member of the “Cool” school, though his style of writing and playing is far more diverse. A perfect example is the thunderous “Crescent City Stomp,” which was originally titled “Shilling,” in honor of the pianist’s long time manager, Russell Shilling Gloyd. I was present at its public premiere in 1998 during a concert in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Nancy Wade, Brubeck’s goddaughter (who also assists him in editing his choral music), requested that he perform this challenging work, which was so new that the members of the quartet still had to sight read it to navigate its difficult changes. Although it was recorded on several occasions, Brubeck was never quite satisfied with any of them, until the recent set at Starbuck’s. Upon hearing it some four plus years later, there was absolutely no hesitation in the group as they plunged into this turbulent post-bop vehicle, driven by a New Orleans drum riff which Brubeck had heard all over the Crescent City.