Triple Play with Dave Brubeck: Saratoga Springs, NY, June 10, 2011

R.J. DeLuke By

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Triple Play with special guest Dave Brubeck
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
June 10, 2011
The Brubecks are a family of fabulously talented musicians, starting of course at the top with father Dave Brubeck, an American cultural icon. Among that brood is Chris Brubeck, known for his talents as a bassist and trombonist, who has spent some time touring in his father's quartet, and plays outstanding jazz in a band his drumming brother, as Brubeck Brothers Quartet.
But Chris Brubeck has another band that he says tours more than the Brubeck Brothers. It's a trio called Triple Play, and believe it; it does not take a back seat to his straight-ahead jazz projects. The band performed as part of SaratogaArtsFest, a four-day celebration of all arts in Saratoga Springs, NY, in concert at Skidmore College. (Incidentally, SaratogaArtsFest is a fine friend of jazz, having featured a major jazz artist in each of its five years). The band put on a scintillating performance; superb musicianship with offerings of a wide range of music, especially the blues.
Triple Play can hold its own as headliner most anywhere. But the group tossed in a ringer, having a certain pianist join them to sit in, none other than Dave Brubeck.

It had to be one of the more memorable nights of music at Skidmore, a college that has hosted many fine concerts—jazz and otherwise—over the years. It wasn't just that the music was excellent—which it was—and that each member of the trio shone. The younger Brubeck not only showed his chops on bass and 'bone, but played accomplished piano. Guitarist Joel Brown's acoustic playing deftly adorned everything on Triple Play's menu, while Peter "Madcat" Ruth is a virtuoso harmonicist who blends a lot of soul with his amazing technique. And all three sing well.

But it was more than that. The band's been together for a while, and that was obvious with the performance, always on the money, tight and together, with rewarding improvisations. But the spirit of the musicians was palpable. They dug the music, and they dug in, pouring their élan into each song. It uplifted the audience, which gave that feeling back to the band—a state musicians strive for, but don't always achieve. Add in the appearance of Dave Brubeck, age 90, and the group achieved it in spades, making for many terrific moments. The music, and the concert, was uplifting. That was tangible, and the grins a cross each of the musicians faces genuinely told the tale.

Triple Play coverts a lot of ground: jazz, blues, folk, county. Said Chris, a couple weeks before the show, "If you can imagine the area where blues, folk music, acoustic funk and jazz overlaps, that's what that group's all about." On this night, most of what they did was blues—from the time Ruth bellowed "it's time for some Mississippi party music"—or related to it.

The first half was all Triple Play, but with another guest, this one a "kid" to the main guest, 85-year-old Frank Brown—Joel's dad—on clarinet. They played a couple tunes by the senior Brubeck—"Polly," which was swinging jazz, and "Koto Song," executed divinely as a slow, poignant ballad with Brown's guitar wringing out the pathos of the song with his thoughtful solo and Ruth literally crying on harp—but romped through tunes with irresistible grooves. "New Stew Opus 2," a sort of remake of King Curtis' "Memphis Stew." Behind Brubeck's funky bass, Triple Play portrayed three fine musicians enjoying themselves infectiously. On "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," the younger Brown sang the emotive Depression-era lyric that, unfortunately applies to today, while the elder Brown entered on clarinet, exhibiting clear and clean articulation, getting a big, warm sound out of the wood. Switching to trombone, Brubeck was soulful and gutsy.

"The Mighty Mrs. Hippy" was a blues that bounced into a boogie woogie with comical lyrics. The band's rhythm is sharp even without a drummer. Brown, who can tear up classical guitar as well rock out and swing, is a dynamite rhythm player. It's a particular, often unnoticed, skill, but vital to Triple Play's antics. Madcat, a wildly imaginative harmonicat on the order of John Sebastian (don't go to sleep on the Welcome Back Kotter author's abilities on harp) adds some percussive playing to help the rhythm, and plays some high-hat cymbal too.

The second half opened with a rendition of Dave Brubeck's second most famous tune, "Blue Ronda a la Turk" and at the point where it breaks from Turkish-influenced rhythm into American blues out walked the composer, taking the piano chair to wild applause. The legend doesn't have the dexterity of old, but the second he started placing two-handed block chords in just the right place for the tune, there was his signature sound. It's something he's always done, even when he could run up and down the keyboard with more fervor. His spares solo on "St. Louis Blues" also created the right feel.

A snappy version of "Three to Get Ready" showed sheer joy. Each member of Triple Play was full into the spirit of playing with the icon, and Dave Brubeck's face continually lit into a smile as he attentively took in the solos of everyone else, as well as admiring the band's groove. When the band members walked to the side, Brubeck the pianist played solo. His Chopin-inspired "Thank You" was a delight. Brubeck's keyboard agility kicked up a couple notches. With two hands he created a chordal landscape that was melancholy, touching and rich, and he added single-note runs that were inventive and intelligent. Classic stuff.

The group ran down some other Dave Brubeck material and, of course, slid into "Take Five." Frank Brown took his most imaginative blues solo of the night, perhaps inspired by the presence of the master comping behind him. His sound and style fit perfectly. Joel's solo too was among his best, crisp and creative, as usual. The drums are an important part of the backdrop for this classic song when the Dave Brubeck quartet performs it, so it was intriguing to see Triple Play execute it just as effectively without drums. It was quieter, but Dave's economical blues and comping put in the right feel, as did his son's electric bass.

Ellington's "A Train" closed the night, but it was really capped off by the classic "Take Five" which set off grins among all the musicians as well as the audience. Skidmore's Zankel Hall was lifted, as was everyone as the filed out. That's the way music is supposed to be and, as Art Blakey once opined, it surely knocked off the dust of everyday life.

"We know we're not the most famous group in the world," said Chris, in that conversation a couple weeks before. "But when people come to see us, they're scratching their head and going, 'Why aren't you more famous?' We just do what we do. We keep playing. We have a great attitude and a great time. Whatever we're doing, we know it's working because it happens every time when we play in front of an audience." Damn straight.

He also said of his father, "He might come out to the piano obviously showing his 90 years in terms of his ability to walk out there. It's not like he's sprinting out there and doing cartwheels to get to the piano seat. But when he sits down. It seems like the decades melt away while he plays." That's no lie. Gingerly assisted when he first came out, the icon's playing was full of musical knowledge and real feeling. It got better and better. And when he left, to wild ovations, he was beaming. He really didn't need his son's assistance. He was buoyed.

Hell, we all were.

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