Friday, June 06, 2008

Take Five. Now Do That Almost Twelve Times, and It Adds Up to a Great Career

COLCHESTER--The air inside the Flynn Center was thick with anticipation tonight as the Dave Brubeck Quartet prepared to take the stage for a sold-out performance, and the legendary pianist and his group didn't fail to deliver.

At age 87, the jazz icon is slowing down a little bit; the festival MC noted that he "only" does about 60 gigs a year now, so tonight's performance was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many in attendance (with the exception of some of the locals, who also enjoyed a Brubeck show here in 2001). After nearly 60 years in the business, he certainly has it down to a science, but the group kept things fresh even while doing a program of classic tunes. (Brubeck noted that they usually wore tuxes, and tonight they were in their "street clothes," which consisted of dark suits. He said that he had set list after set list in his tux pockets, but nothing of the sort here, so the show would be a bit different than usual.)

The group has been together for a long time; Drummer Randy Jones dates back to 1980, saxophonist Bobby Militello joined in 1991, and the "new kid," bassist Michael Moore, came on board in 2002. This allowed for a lot of sympathetic back-and-forth between the members, and it's quite possible that some of the show was assembled on the fly (Brubeck started nearly every tune, often with interesting cadenzas that kept what they were playing a mystery for a while). The selections ranged from timeless standards ("On the Sunny Side of the Street") to trademark Brubeck odd-meter explorations (the opening "Unisphere" in 5/4) and more traditional originals ("In Your Own Sweet Way").

So the question in the minds of many was probably "Does Brubeck still have it?", and I'm happy to report that he does. Though he walked and spoke haltingly at the beginning of the show, he still displayed creativitiy, dexterity and humor throughout the evening. Bassist Moore contributed some fine solo work, including a very nice arco solo on a tune with a boogie-woogie feel whose title was not announced. Drummer Jones held everything together nicely, showing a clever palette of colors on his extended solo at the end of the night. And for me (and yes, as a saxophonist, I'm almost certainly biased here), Militello was the second-biggest jewel in the crown tonight, adding a bebop sensibility to Brubeck's often-delicate chamber jazz that Paul Desmond would never have done, pushing the group in new directions and keeping it modern. (He also suggested the opener, "Unisphere," to Brubeck when asked; the pianist replied that he doubted many people knew the tune. "I wrote it, and I don't know it," he said before proving otherwise.)

And I'm sure the other big question on everyone's mind was whether or not the group would play "Take Five," the Paul Desmond-penned warhorse that has been Brubeck's meal ticket for decades. I would have been OK with him not playing it (especially if "Blue Rondo a la Turk" had been substituted), but he gave the crowd what he wanted for the final number, sneaking into it with a slow piano intro and topped off by the aforementioned extended drum solo by Jones.

Some have derided Brubeck over the course of his career for his nearly over-coolness and classical bent, but there's no denying the contribution the man has made to jazz: Bringing it a little closer to the masses with his legendary odd-meter classics and making visits to college campuses a staple of most artists' schedules. What he does, he does very, very well, and it's great to see that time has hardly slowed him down at all. Tonight's show was one for the ages.

Trivia of the day: "In college, Brubeck was nearly expelled when one of his professors discovered that he could not read sheet music. Several of his professors came forward arguing for his ability with counterpoint and harmony, but the school was still afraid that it would cause a scandal, and only agreed to let Brubeck graduate once he promised never to teach piano."--from the Wikipedia article on Brubeck.

Another voice: Here's a review of the concert by Brent Hallenbeck of the Burlington Free Press.
UPDATE: And one more from Paul Kaza of the same paper.

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