"Legend" is one of those descriptions too easily awarded to public figures whose longevity, rather than talent, makes them more deserving of the label "survivor."
Jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, however, is one of the few for whom "legend" is rightfully assigned, and his appearance at tonight's Jazz City opening is truly a historical event.
From a postwar beginning in West Coast clubs, Brubeck grabbed the attention of the world when he appeared on the cover of Time in 1954, and his maverick approach to jazz was heralded.
With an appreciation for European classical composition, Brubeck sought to explore what he imagined common to both it and his beloved jazz. In solos, he's often quoted several bars of well-known pieces - Bach particularly.
This earned him and sax player Paul Desmond a substantial following on the middle-class college circuit, though not initially the blessing of critics, who were suspicious of non-purist composition.
Odd-metered rhythms, or even the employment of multiple, overlapped timings, and polytonality - the use of two or more keys simultaneously - and the addition of unconventional drummer Joe Morello made the Dave Brubeck Quartet a rare combo.
Their first album, Time Out, recorded in 1959, yielded the enduring masterpiece Take Five, which itself possesses an uncommonly difficult rhythm that Brubeck discovered in improvisation.
"I just pounded out the time to keep us together," Brubeck has often recalled of the recording.
Indeed, on the band's second album, 1961's Time Further Out, there is an unassuming number with a deceivingly simple melody. But Unsquare Dance is backed up by a bizarre timing that defies you to successfully tap your foot or snap your fingers in accompaniment.
In the original liner notes, Brubeck himself explained that "The laugh you hear at the end is Joe Morello's guffaw of surprise and relief that we had managed to get through the difficult last chorus."
While this experimental composition is a signature of Brubeck, it's hardly the sum of his talent. Indeed, live and solo piano releases include covers and standards whose success has led to Brubeck being credited in some circles for paving the way for other pianist composers, particularly Canadian Oscar Peterson.
Despite a triple bypass in his early 70s and approaching his 80th birthday, Brubeck continues to release impressive CDs. In the past several years there has been a gem of a solo piano recording, Just You, Just Me - his first in nearly half a century; a special guest recording with Brubeck and a cross generation of stars, from Joshua Redman and Christian McBride to Joe Lovano and Gerry Mulligan; and two discs recorded live at New York's famous Blue Note.
Perhaps the latter two alone confirm Brubeck's status. During their taping, the pianist told the bar's management to do the once-unthinkable for a Greenwich Village jazz club, and ban smoking during his one-week engagement.
They made it so.
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