Dave Brubeck sits at the piano, his craggy profile jutting forward, his white, leonine hair flowing, a living jazz legend in his 75th year. He surveys the scene around him, nods his head in a downbeat and movies his large, practiced hands toward the keyboard.
The music begins. But it's not exactly what one anticipates. No "Take Five" or "Blue Rondo á la Turk," no lengthy excursions through the blues, no offbeat examinations of unusual rhythms.
Brubeck, in fact, is surrounded by a choir. And the soaring vocal sounds that fill the air are the product of a "second career" that the veteran pianist-composer has been following for more than three decades. Tonight, at St. Augustine by-the-sea Parish in Santa Monica, Brubeck and the vocal group Cantori Domino will launch a "mini-festival" of his choral works at three Los Angeles area churches in celebration of his 75th birthday (which actually took place on Dec. 6).
Choral works, of course, are not what come to mind when Brubeck's name is mentioned. A major jazz star since the early '50s, he has maintained his popularity through a multiplicity of changing musical styles. And, although he now records for Telarc, a record company occasionally described as the Fuddy-Duddy Label for its persistent courting of senior jazz players, Brubeck is producing some of his finest improvisations, frequently performing and recording with musicians young enough to be his grandchildren.
But jazz activities must now share substantial time with his classical writing and his choral music. The fascination with works for choir -- especially as vehicles for sacred music -- reaches back at least 50 years for Brubeck.
"It started with World War II," he explains. "I was 21 when I went in the Army, and I saw a lot of things that I still can't forget. A lot of my friends were being killed, and that's when I got the idea to compose an oratorio built around the Ten Commandments, especially "Thou shalt not kill." Because I couldn't figure out how anybody who was really understanding their religion could be involved in the things that were going on.
"The problem, " Brubeck adds, whose twangy voice and wry, anecdotal manner suggest an image of the California rancher-veterinarian he once planned to become, "was that I didn't have the skill to do it until I was in my 40s."
Then a personal tragedy revived his interest in sacred music. In 1964, when the 16-year old son of his brother, composer Howard Brubeck, died of a brain tumor, Brubeck decided that he had to find an expressive way to deal with his feelings. The result was his first choral work, "Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled."
"It just seemed," he says, "like the best way to let my brother know how I felt. And that was all I really was thinking about at the time."
That it was a musical success is testimony to the power of Brubeck's creative inspiration rather than his technical facility. He was at the time, by his own admission, barely beginning to learn how to write for chorus.
"The first thing I did," he says with a laugh," was to look up the range for voices in a music book. It had the soprano up to a high G, and then it added in small notes up to a high C - in other words, up to the extreme top range.
"So I just went ahead and used the extreme ranges when I wrote "Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled," and put in some Cs for the sopranos. Well, when we performed the piece, we did it with a 500-voice choir that was assembled from a bunch of churches. And I'll be damned if all of the sopranos didn't go up and hit that high C. It was one of the greatest sounds I ever heard. But I don't write parts that high anymore."
When Brubeck's publisher urged him to continue his choral writing, he wrote "The Light in the Wilderness," a 70-minute oratorio based on the temptations and the teachings of Christ.
Among the other pieces that followed in rapid succession were the three that Brubeck will perform this week with Cantori Domino and an instrumental ensemble under the baton of the choir's artistic director, Maurita Phillips-Thornburgh.
The "Pange Lingua Variations," which will be sung tonight with the aid of Brubeck's sons Chris on bass and Dan on drums, traces to an ancient melody that motivated St. Thomas Aquinas to write a set of Latin stanzas in the 13th century. Brubeck's rendering views each variation as "a miniature meditation."
"La Fiesta De Posada," a cantata inspired by the traditional Mexican pre-Christmas pageant that re-enacts Mary and Joseph's search for lodging, adds a quartet of vocal soloists at the Bel-Air Presbyterian Church on Friday.
"What I wanted to capture in this work," Brubeck says, "was the sense of sharing that is universal to people with a strong communal sense."
On New Year's Eve, "The Gates of Justice," a composition commissioned by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and based upon a text drawn from the Old Testament and the writings of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., will be performed at Immanuel Presbyterian Church. Brubeck will join his two sons and saxophonist Bobby Millitello for a jazz set.
Although Brubeck's "second career" in classical and choral music has become more visible in recent years, he studied with French composer Darius Milhaud (after whom he named one of his sons) and has been writing larger-scale works for decades.
Like many jazz players with ambitions that reach beyond the familiar boundaries of their art, however, Brubeck's extended efforts often have had greater success with audiences than with classical music or jazz critics.
"It's been sort of a problem for years," he says with a shrug. "But it's getting to the point where it's changing. One choral conductor in London, in fact, didn't know that I played jazz. When I heard that, I thought, 'Well, I finally convinced somebody that I could do something other than jazz.'
"But I don't want to sell jazz short," he adds. You know, I think that the American composers whose music will live are the ones who have used the jazz idiom, like Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington."
Brubeck probably wouldn't presume to append his name to that illustrious list, despite his growing catalog of impressive, jazz-tinted works for choruses, orchestras, string quartets and other classical ensembles.
More important to him than notoriety, in this diamond anniversary month, is his desire to illuminate his works - which include texts devised by Iola Brubeck his wife of 50 years - with a glow of optimism.
"There's always a center for me in my pieces," he explains. "In 'The Light in the Wilderness,' Christ says, 'Love your enemies. Do good to those that hate you.' And the center of the 'Gates of Justice' is Martin Luther King Jr. saying, 'We must live together as brothers, or die together as fools.'