Brubeck at 80

Various pieces by Brubeck and other composers

London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Russell Gloyd

Reviewed by: Jason Boyd

Reviewed: 23 December, 2000
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Few musicians can boast such an endurable and consistently popular career as the Jazz legend Dave Brubeck. It seems too that Brubeck has had little trouble finding musicians to team up with – simply having another child proved a good solution. And so it is at 80 years of age, Brubeck Senior – with his four musician sons, saxophonist Bobby Militello, bass player Alec Dankworth and the LSO – proved again the quality of his enigmatic appeal.

This concert was sold out, as was the previous performance two nights earlier, with long queues of anxious hopefuls waiting to purchase cancellation tickets. This is the first concert of this type (in which two distinct genres of musicians come together) that I had been to – and one I had an open mind towards. I realised that it could quite possibly be a hotchpotch of music in which the LSO simply provided a pleasant background for Brubeck, a way of intellectualising what is regarded by many as rather low-brow.

The first piece – Summer Music – sounded distinctly like the works on John Barry’s album The Beyondness of Things. It is very difficult to categorise, it sounded very American and filmic, almost reminiscent of some of Copland’s pastoral works, combining sweeping unison strings with warm brass – a pleasing feature that rather drowned-out Brubeck.

Brubeck’s Chorale is inspired by his favourite composer – JS Bach; inspired in the abstract sense, as harmonically and structurally Chorale is far removed from the Baroque. In his introduction, Russell Gloyd highlighted the fact that in his day, Bach received requests from the local council not to improvise so much when playing hymns and to stick to the melody written as the congregation found it hard to follow. This is where the Bach connection comes in, as Brubeck and each of the other soloists improvised melodies over the orchestral foundation. I could not help but compare with other works – Chorale did sound a little like Schoenberg’s earlier works such as Transfigured Night’, which may be a direct influence – Schoenberg having been one of Brubeck’s composition teachers. It was a very sublime work, teetering on the edge of tonality. There was again heavy emphasis on the strings – particularly on the violins, playing, in their higher register, in unison: a sound I have come to loathe. It sounds far too ‘easy listening’ and contrived, which caused me to cringe in disgust on several occasions.. Strings, when played with even a slight hint of counterpoint and variety within the voices, can do much to bring aural pleasure and a pleasing rich texture.

Of further interest was the evening’s world premiere. Dave Brubeck’s oldest son Darius as a tribute to Dave’s lifetime achievement composed Four Score in Seven. Attempting to incorporate all things akin to Dave, this was something of a tour of musical styles. Centred a great deal around the piano (Darius’s own instrument) this was an engaging work that managed to hold together a diverse stylistic range in something like a Rondo structure that had a recurring cascading theme from the piano. This was the most enjoyable piece of the evening, interesting in its creative use of all available instruments (and not a hint of high unison strings!).

Of course no evening associated with Dave Brubeck would be complete without a performance of Take Five. This work has attracted much attention over the years, I even spoke tonight to a Russian journalist who is making a series of radio programmes for broadcast throughout Europe devoted to this one piece. Why it has become so popular no doubt has something to do with its catchy irregular 5/4 rhythm, and somewhat luscious melody, usually played on the saxophone. It is however ironic that the actual composer, Paul Desmond, rarely receives a mention; people just keep it inextricably linked with Brubeck. Played at a moderate tempo, each soloist took it in turn to take a lead break. On saxophone was the huge Bobby Militello who often looked as though he would burst, but played with immense stamina and vitality. Dan Brubeck showed equal stamina providing a fabulous five-minute improvisation on drums that focused all attention on the rhythmic irregularity. The very likeable trombonist Chris Brubeck displayed a great enjoyment of all that was going on particularly with regard to his brother’s drum rendition, moving his head like a pecking hen while listening. His performance was impressive, if not occasionally a little forced. Several times he didn’t have enough time to breathe so as to produce a big enough sound that would carry over the band and orchestra.

The whole evening was full of entertainment, but it was a little disconcerting to have the intimacy of a Jazz group (and occasionally a Jazz quartet) suddenly enlarged to a symphony orchestra – which left me wondering, why bother? I am not sure that it added much to the original compositions, which might, in fact, have benefited from a slightly less expanded arrangement. Was it a case of Dave Brubeck performing with the LSO or the LSO performing with Dave Brubeck? I would say that the LSO was confined to backing Dave Brubeck, the man people were really interested in seeing. The LSO perhaps add that refining appeal to attract a wider audience, which I hardly feel Brubeck or his music needs. The amplification was reasonable although the stage looked a little cluttered – many microphones were being used for future release on the LSO Live label. Something tells me that it will be a popular disc.

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