Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dave Brubeck - “Ode to a Cowboy”

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It is amazing to consider the fact that pianist-composer-arranger, Dave Brubeck, who turns 92 on December 6, 2012, spent over 60 years on the road until his retirement from what his wife Iola Brubeck referenced in a message to the Jazz writer and blogger Doug Ramsey as - “The Gigs.”

Can you imagine - sixty years on the road?

I was reflecting on this incredible achievement with a pianist friend recently and his initial reaction was – “Just think about all those cruddy pianos he had to play on before he became famous.” Derelict pianos were a fact-of-life in most Jazz joints for many years.

One of Dave’s earliest albums for Columbia Records was Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. [CL 984]. It was recorded in 1956 and 1957 when Dave’s quartet had been traveling regularly for about 5 years.

One can only wonder at what such a diary of musical impressions might sound like if another 55-years of traveling was added to it!

At the time of its issuance, Dave wrote the following introductory paragraphs for the albums liner notes:

“A music notebook is as important to the traveling musician, as a sketch pad is to the artist. When lulled by the sounds of travel, the drone of the plane, the rumble of the bus, the clack of the rails, or even the hiss of the radiator in a strange hotel room, themes suddenly spring into consciousness. If a sketchbook is handy, the elusive idea is captured to be developed, arranged or changed. "Jazz Impressions" is a group of compositions created in just such a manner, from notebook scribblings made while on tour. It was recorded on three different dates, in three different cities (New York, Hollywood, and Oakland) as our itinerary permitted.

As many popular songs have been transformed by jazz into almost different tunes — different in emotional content, rhythmic conception, and melodic development — so these sketches by the Quartet vary according to the mood of the group and the individual interpretations of the soloist. The themes themselves, which are but the skeletal framework for improvisation, occasionally use musical devices which are typical of certain regions in the United States.

Although these pieces have their moments of humor, at no time do we attempt to satirize the indigenous music which served as inspiration for these impressions. Much of the folk music of America has become integrated into jazz, and conversely jazz has affected folk music itself, so that today we find endless cross-influences.”

The opening track on the  Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. LP is entitled Ode to a Cowboy.

The following anecdote about Dave’s formative years prior to becoming a professional musician may have had something to do with the manner in which this Jazz impression was formed.

Dave was a working cowboy by the rime he was thirteen. "My dad," he said, "was a cattleman and a top rodeo roper, maybe the top in California some years. He was the Salinas Rodeo and Livermore champion in roping. He wanted a son that would follow him. I was the youngest of the sons, so I was his last chance.

"My dad covered the western states, buying cattle for a big company called the Moffet Meat Company," Dave said. "And like myself, he was always on the road. He wanted to settle down. So the company gave him a 45,000-acre ranch to manage, if you can imagine how large that is. In some places it was twenty-five miles across. He moved there and took me and my mother when I was twelve.

The ranch was in Ione about 115 miles east of San Francisco in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s.” [Gene Lees, The Man on the Buffalo Nickel, in Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White, p. 43].

Also in his notes to the album, Dave wrote:

Ode to a Cowboy is an example of group creation, after the theme has been presented and the idea discussed. Paul Desmond's alto becomes the plaintive voice of a singing cowboy, and Norman Bates' bass, his guitar accompaniment. The tango rhythm was Norman's invention, his contribution to the developed composition. Joe Morello's sensitive drumming suggests the presence of the cowboy's sole companion. A typical cowboy chord progression is intrinsic in the melody.”

The tune has always been one of my favorites and I’ve used Ode to a Cowboy as the audio track to the following video tribute to Dave which was made with the help of the crackerjack video team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities of StudioCerra. The montage contains many rare album covers from Dave’s years with Fantasy Records as well as many other images that I think you’ll find of interest.

Maybe someone will one day write a tune entitled Ode to a Jazz Musician and dedicate it to Dave?