The Son Also Rises: Chris Brubeck, the new Gershwin?

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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Damn sissy musician--I wanted a cowboy, for God's sake! —Grandpa Pete Brubeck [referring to son Dave]
I caught up with Chris Brubeck, a son of Dave, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. On the 2003 M/S Maasdam Jazz Cruise, he played electric bass and trombone in the Taylor Eigsti trio, with brother Dan on drums. A superb, high-energy configuration, it was buoyed (pun fully intended) by the tremendous good humor of the siblings. Chris, who lives in Connecticut, is extremely bright, open, and very funny; I had to add punctuation to his free-flowing thoughts, which were full of detours, asides, and hilarious lapses into imitations and dialect. His enthusiasm for music, his family, and life in general is clear and contagious. Aside from his obvious playing talents, he's a sought-after and very busy composer. We talked about his work and what it was like "growing up Brubeck."

All About Jazz: So...you do a lot of composing?

Chris Brubeck: Yeah, all the time. It's like every second of my life I gotta do this or I gotta do that. I'm proud of myself for being able to suspend belief for a week, and just be a jazz musician on a jazz cruise, but I'm gonna pay for it when I get home.

AAJ: So you don't consider yourself a jazz musician?

CB: No, I do, but it's rotating all the time between being a writer—when really that has to be my top priority, because I have a deadline with a real performance date. If it's not that, then suddenly, when I get off this boat, I have to switch into becoming mostly a trombone player because I'm playing my overture with the Fort Wayne Symphony Orchestra, and some other stuff. Next week I've gotta practice two hours a day, and I'm lucky to have the kind of embouchure that can come back in a week of focusing. But then, right after I'm through with that, I have to focus on being a composer, because I'm writing a new trombone concerto which has to be ready in January [2004] for a recording session in Prague, so... it's sort of shifting priorities all the time.

AAJ: I'm sure it would be an inane question to ask which one you like best... you'll probably say they all have their advantages...?

CB: Thank God, it's such a relief. When you're doing a thing as a writer, especially when you're orchestrating, it's so labor-intensive after the fact. The closest analogy is when you're an architect, you have to dream up what the design is, and the look of the thing. That's the artistic part. But architects then hire contractors—they're not there shovelling the trenches and laying in the pipe—unless you're John Williams, who can afford to have 10 assistants to do sketches. I'm the one who's writing every note.

And it's not just the notes. The notes is the layer that most people, if they think at all about what a composer does, they think well, he writes the notes. But then he's got to write the dynamics: how loud this is to be played, and how short... There are all these layers, so it's very meticulous.

Being a composer is a strange mixture of someone who has talent and creativity to think of it in the first place, and the diligence and the sadomasochism to finish it in the second place, which is why a lot of these great musicians on this boat aren't composers, I think, because they don't have the disciplined sadomasochistic part. (laughs)

But then of course the converse to that is to play a jazz gig, and I'll look at Taylor [Eigsti] and he'll say ok, well, what are we going to do? Let's just jam and we'll start in D minor, and like, thank GOD, I can make music the total opposite way.

AAJ: It looks like fun, because I see you on the stand and you're just grinning and shaking your head around...

CB: Yeah, part of that may be just the relief of another way of making music, without the tortured meticulous stuff.

AAJ: Do you ever get to hear it without having to be up there?

CB: Oh yeah. That's what's great about composing: you don't even have to get the jitters! Like that piece called Interplay for Three Violins and Orchestra with Regina Carter, Eileen Ivers, and Nadia Solerno-Sonnenberg. That was terrific. The Boston Pops came to me and said we're doing a special PBS show about the violin, we've got these three artists from three different schools of playing, and we wanted someone to write a triple concerto in three different styles simultaneously, and of course we thought of you (laughs)... 'cause I'd played with Irish fiddlers, and did funk, and played jazz, and knew about classical music because they'd commissioned me to write other pieces.

So that should've been extremely difficult, but it turned out—and I don't even know why—to be really easy and quick. The first thing was, there was a big meeting with all their retinues, and managers, and press agents. I wanted to meet with them to see if they liked me, I didn't know them, and if they were diva-esque you know, this could be hell, you keep writing revisions (whines): "she's got four more bars than I do!" But they were really funny, down-to-earth kind of people. I was especially perplexed by Nadja Solerno—Sonnenberg. She sounds like she comes in with the beautiful accent, like (Italian accent) Anna-maria AlberGHETTI—but she's a Joisey girl. With a name like that, she's like the Madonna character from "A League of their Own"—a really brassy broad, you know? She was the strongest personality there: "girls, what they tell you isn't true, you gotta lose 15 pounds for TV!"

They were so funny making jokes, they had a great repartee, it gave me a blueprint: I've got to make the ideas flow around. So I borrowed from the jazz idiom—the idea of trading fours—and put them in, which from a classical viewpoint, is kind of a weird thing to do, at least a little bit. I'm going to cast things kinda differently: there's an Irish waltz theme, but I wanted Regina to play it instead.

All these things worked out really fine—they were terrific to work with. I had such a laundry list to accomplish and it had to be 10 minutes long, but by the time I was through accomplishing them it was, oh, hey, I have a piece! (laughs) Sometimes when you have just total freedom and creativity, it's too much freedom to rein you in, so this was the opposite.


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