Thursday, December 06, 2012

Mockingbird on Dave Brubeck and a few thoughts of my own

Earlier this year, when I wrote a guest piece for Internet Monk, I mused on how if in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek, or male or female then this meant that there is no high or low, art or pop, indie or mainstream but all are united in Christ who reconciles all things to God the Father through Himself.  It's fitting to remember in the week of Brubeck's passing that he was Catholic (I'm Protestant but let's set aside a few of those ceaseless differences, significant though they are, to consider an element of Brubeck's legacy).  Brubeck was catholic in his faith and musical interests and the cool sound he helped develop was a sound that fused "classical" with "jazz" in ways that were new and interesting. 

I heard Brubeck twenty years ago and my musical thinking has never been the same since.  What may be tedious or unappealing to many music listeners about Brubeck's music could well be summed up in "musical thinking".  Brubeck was often a cerebral musician in how he came across, how he'd improvise an idea.  There was, particularly for his detractors, something un-swinging and eggheaded about his musical approach.  Even twenty years ago when I was introduced to his music I met people who said that Brubeck did not play jazz.  About sixteen years ago the magazine Downbeat noted by that time Dave Brubeck constituted one of the pillars of mid-20th century jazz composers and pianists because, quite simply, he'd outlived pretty much all the jazz critics who refused to recognize his music as jazz.  When all the dissenters have died off and you're still alive and kicking and touring and recording then, well, you kinda won that battle, didn't you?

Decades ago I wrote a little instrumental piece mainly in 5/8 that people thought I had written after hearing "Take Five" by the Brubeck Quartet.  That piece is associated with Brubeck even though it was written by Desmond and when I wrote my 5/8 piece I had never even heard of Dave Brubeck or Paul Desmond.  What I had heard was John Coltrane's "Afro Blue" and Tom Petty's "Breakdown".  I liked both songs and wanted to come up with a song that was somewhere in between.  So betweeen the buoyant 6/8 of Coltrane and the weirdly agitated lethargy of Tom Petty's four-on-the-floor I came up with a slightly astringent 5/8.  Nobody at college who heard the instrumental believed I hadn't heard of Brubeck when I wrote the thing ... except for a friend of mine who was an old bandmate who says that the way I think about music the Coltrane/Tom Petty fusion into 5/8 totally makes sense. 

Some twenty years on I'll happily say that Brubeck's music has been a touchstone for my way of thinking about composing and to some degree my musical goals.  Theere's also Hindemith, Penederecki, Messiaen, Haydn, Bach, Stravinsky, Stevie Wonder ... but Brubeck was one of those seminal discoveries in which this guitarist and composer discovered a kind of fusion (and there are many kinds of fusion) that took hold of me. 

Let me say something in defense of cerebral music.  It is often said that music is a thing that speaks directly to the heart but it is taken for granted in a preponderance of tacitly dominant musical styles that something is understood and perceived by the mind to be actually be a musical style and an acceptable one before the "heart" has an emotional response. In the last one hundred and fifty years styles have exploded across and within regions.  We live in the most polystylistic musical moment in the history of the entire human race.  We live in an era in which the very idea of purity of style could be a quaint notion and it would be difficult to say there are any "rules" left to break except, perhaps, two sorts of rules:  1) the rules limiting what is possible with sound due to sheer physical limitations in tone production and human perception (though musical works exploiting infrasound are still feasible) and 2) limits in what is considered to be the barrier between Style A and Style B. 

Brubeck was a musician who spent a lifetime crossing back and forth between what we might call Style A and Style B.  He may not have always had equally effective and compelling moments in any of those two way stations, if you will, but that he was able to travel so freely and readily between those stations is itself an example for us to consider both now and in the future.  We have lived through so many fractures and revolutions that the possibilities for moments and movements of consolidation and fusion may seem hard to imagine.  Those moments were not hard for Dave Brubeck to imagine, he imagined them in all sorts of ways.  It may be both too corny and too obvious to say that this enterprise of fusion and consolidation requires acting in faith and yet, as we know if we've listened to more than just a little Dave Brubedk he wasn't afraid to be either corny or obvious when he decided that it was musically worth doing. 


Anonymous said...

I don' think that the purists were necessarily complaining that his style wasn't sufficiently 'from the heart'.

Brubeck was generally using the jazz idiom to write in a different style. More in the vein of Stephen Foster and Ira Gershwin, rather than Ornette Coleman or George Russell (both of whom wrote very cerebral music).

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

A good point. I've got some of Russell's music and have listened to a bit of Coleman and they did, certainly, both write cerebral music.

Josh T. said...

I started listening to Brubeck a couple of years ago when I started learning to play jazz (drums) and after watching the Ken Burns documentary. I like Take Five a lot, but this particular version from a concert in Belgium has an unusual piano solo that I especially enjoy: