Dave Brubeck: Small Groups, Large Stature

Jack Bowers By

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Dave Brubeck wasn't really a big-band kinda guy; in fact, he was seldom seen in groups larger than four or five. On the other hand, he was an extraordinary musician, one whose influence will no doubt be felt for generations to come. Brubeck, who remained active almost to the end of his life, died December 5 in Norwalk, CT, one day before his ninety-second birthday. The particulars of Brubeck's long career are well known, so there's no need to dwell on them here. He was the last surviving member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which reanimated small-group jazz in the '50s and '60s and recorded Time Out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, which included the hit song "Take Five," written by the group's alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond (although Brubeck always maintained that he was its co-author). While not every critic was a fan of Brubeck's music or his pianistic style (described at times as heavy-handed, bombastic or non-swinging), his fans far outnumbered the critics, and their approval and loyalty kept the Brubeck quartet in the upper echelons of jazz groups until it was disbanded in 1967. Brubeck continued to perform later in life, with other groups (he had formed a quartet with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in 1968), as a solo act, a conductor, and at times with his musician sons: Darius, Chris, Dan and Matthew. In 1999, Brubeck was named an NEA Jazz Master, and ten years later received the Kennedy Center Honors for his contributions to American culture. One thing that becomes clear in reading about his life is that Brubeck was as well-liked as he was talented, and that is saying a lot. He was also a tireless advocate for racial equality and integration, which says even more. Brubeck was married only once, to the former Iola Whitlock, a union that lasted for seventy years (Iola is among his survivors). Dave Brubeck's body of work is enormous, from jazz to classical, and it may be some time before its depth is plumbed and its singularity wholly appreciated.

Why Jazz Happened

I recently received in the mail a copy of Marc Myers' new book, Why Jazz Happened, which was obviously sent by someone who wasn't aware that I neither read nor review books. I do, however, read blogs including Myers' popular "Jazz Wax," and can say without pause that he is an excellent writer who is extremely knowledgeable about jazz of all stripes and eras. The book, which covers the years between World War II and Watergate, is described in a press release as "the first comprehensive social history of jazz." In other words, it places the music in context, outlining and analyzing the cultural forces that helped shape the music and gave rise to various post-war styles. It is written from the "inside out," encompassing numerous interviews and comments by musicians, producers, promoters and others who were on the scene and knew in detail what was happening. Publishers Weekly sums it up nicely: "In this energetic and captivating tale, Wall Street Journal music critic [Marc] Myers enthusiastically chronicles the many social, political, legal and monetary forces outside of music that shaped the evolution of jazz. With impeccable timing, Myers provides a steady backbeat of stories [about] the development of music from bebop, jazz-classical and West Coast jazz to spiritual jazz, jazz-pop and jazz-rock fusion . . . Like a great jazz recording, Myers's first-rate social history pulls us into its complex rhythms and harmonies, casting its mesmerizing spell." And that's as close as I'll come to reviewing a book, except to say, Marc, I hope it sells at least a million copies.

Closer to Home . . .

On December 7, Betty and I returned to Albuquerque's Manzano High School for a concert featuring the school's two jazz ensembles and the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra with guest artist Mike Williams, the lead trumpeter with the Count Basie Orchestra. Williams also performed with the high school bands, which played well for director Brad Dubbs, soloing on Doug Beach's "Plunger Power," the Louis Armstrong staple "What a Wonderful World," and the Maynard Ferguson favorite, "Gonna Fly Now" (a.k.a. the theme from Rocky).

That set the tone for the evening as Williams, more lead player than jazz soloist, served primarily as high-note specialist with the AJO on "Begin the Beguine," "Over the Rainbow" (a trumpet duet with Dubbs), "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (another with trumpeter Kent Erickson), "Maria" and "MacArthur Park." Williams sat out on the more jazz-oriented themes, Matt Catingub's "Thad-ish" and John Clayton's "Nice to Meet You." Dubbs (muted) and trombonist Christian Pincock were the soloists on "Thad-ish," Pincock, Erickson, pianist Jim Ahrend and tenor Lee Taylor on "Nice to Meet You." Taylor and AJO director / lead alto Glenn Kostur also soloed on "MacArthur Park," tenor Aaron Lovato on "Begin the Beguine." an enjoyable concert, tempered only by the fact that Williams, for all his talent, is best suited for section work than improvisation.

On the Horizon

The Monterey Jazz Festival's 55th Anniversary Celebration kicks off January 10 in Santa Cruz, CA, and continues through April 28, covering forty cities in twenty-three states. The all-star Monterey Festival Band features vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Lewis Nash, saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Benny Green and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Highlights of the nine-week tour include a six-night run at the Blue Note in New York City and appearances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; the Epcot Center in Calgary, Alberta, Canada; the Chicago Symphony Center, and Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA. Information about the tour dates and times are available at www.montereyjazzfestival.com

Recent Releases

Keith Karns Big Band
Thought and Memory
Keith Karns Music

For his inaugural recording as a big-band leader, trumpeter Keith T Karns, a native of Alaska who now teaches at the University of North Texas in Denton, has written and arranged a quartet of extended contemporary works to complement two by the legendary bassist Charles Mingus, "Gunslinging Bird" and "Better Get Hit in Your Soul." The longer pieces are separated at times by brief "Interludes" for solo instruments: the first for bassist Ken Ge (not to be confused with Kenny G), the second for pianist Steve Hobert, the third for Karns himself. Each of them segues seamlessly into the ensuing number.

Perhaps taking his cue from Mingus and others, Karns writes with one ear attuned to jazz tradition, the other centered on tomorrow and the path that big bands may choose to traverse as time-honored guidelines are cast aside to make way for new patterns. While melody has its place in this brave new world, it is less decisive than before, yielding some of its priority to the over-all form and substance of a particular composition. That's not to imply that melody is absent; far from it. On the other hand, when the song is ended the melody seldom lingers on (Mingus' "Soul," with its gospel-inflected strains, marks an exception to the rule).

Karns raises the curtain with "Wednesday Came to a Crossroads," which opens auspiciously after an intro by bassist Ge and pianist Hobert, moving pleasantly forward in 7/4 time before crisp solos by Karns, tenor Aaron Hedenstrom and drummer Brian Claxton lead to the "Crossroads," whose clamorous sonority calls to mind Times Square on New Year's eve. Hedenstrom solos again, with trombonist Nick Syman, on "Some Characters and Incidents Are Fictitious," on which Claxton's drums again play an essential role. After the first interlude, Karns' funky "Salt Water Rocket" takes flight, powered again by Claxton's emphatic drum work and earnest solos by Karns and tenor Brian Handelan}. "Thought and Memory," the last of Karns' compositions, is an opulent ballad on which Hedenstrom's expressive tenor is preceded by Hobert's eloquent commentary. Syman, Claxton and baritone Jon Vallejo are front and center on the bluesy "Gunslinging Bird," Hobert, Syman, Hedenstrom, Claxton, alto Jim Geddes and trumpeter Jeff Walk on "Better Get Hit in Your Soul."

Karns writes and arranges quite well in a contemporary vein, while the band is invariably poised and alert. As to whether the outcome is agreeable, that is a matter of taste. Karns' themes are unequivocally progressive, albeit in no way uncoupled from their more customary heritage. Those who are familiar with Mingus and his music may deduce for themselves the avenue that Karns aspires to traverse. Thought and Memory is a persuasive first step along that roadway.

Norman David and the Eleventet
At This Time

Norman David has done some moving around in his more than three decades as a respected working musician, and wherever he has gone, the Eleventet—his "passion for many years"—has come along for the ride: in Boston, Maine, New York City and, most recently, Philadelphia, from whence the group's latest incarnation has recorded the appropriately named At This Time. (As who knows where the Eleventet may be at this time a year from now, or a decade?) The title also denotes where David stands "at this time" in terms of composing and arranging; he wrote every number save the Academy Award-winning standard, "Secret Love," and arranged them all, as well as playing soprano saxophone in the ensemble's four-man reed section, which includes alto Dick Oatts, tenor George Garzone and baritone Mark Allen.

David's compositions are contemporary in the best sense of the word; there are, however, no tunes that linger long in the memory bank or lend themselves to whistling or humming. A few more standards would not have been amiss; "Secret Love" (given a minor-key make-over) is in fact a highlight, as well as a song that has stood the test of time and quickens the mind long after the recording has ended. That is not to say that David's compositions are less than agreeable, simply that they lack the allure or staying power of a "Secret Love." There's certainly no shame in that, as few songs do, especially those written to serve as jazz themes, not for mass consumption.

One advantage of an Eleventet (four saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones and rhythm) is that it can sound like a big band or small group, depending on the particular arrangement, and David writes with that in mind, blending bold ensemble passages with others that convey a small-group dynamic while setting aside ample space for improvisation. Oatts, Garzone and trumpeter Tim Hagans are widely known as resourceful soloists, and the others aren't far behind, especially Allen, pianist Tom Lawton and trombonist Randy Kapralick. Lawton is one-third of an unsung rhythm section (the others are bassist John Hebert and drummer Dan Monaghan) that performs admirably throughout. As for David, he is out front on three numbers, and his are the only solos that failed to produce an auspicious impression on these ears—a purely subjective appraisal, one with which other listeners may disagree.

When all is said, done and written, David and the Eleventet have recorded an album that is in its way as smart and stylish as any other, at least At This Time.

Fred Hess Big Band



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