Friday, April 14, 2017

Dave Brubeck Quartet Zurich 1964

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

"You can't understand America without understanding jazz, and you can't understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck". (1)

"Most Jazz lovers probably remember the first time this music got into our bones. For me, that happened as a child when my father, whom I barely knew, came to visit me for about a month. And in the few weeks I spent with him one of the things he did was to take me to my first jazz concert to see Dave Brubeck in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1971. And I did not realize at the time the impact that it had, but the world that that concert opened up for a ten year-old boy was spectacular. And I was hooked." (2)

President Barack Obama

(1) John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, December 6, 2009. honoring Dave Brubeck for exhibiting excellence in performing arts on his 89th birthday, and broadcasted nationwide on CBS on December 29,2009

(2) White House, Washington, April 30, 2016, International Jazz Day, remembering his very first impressions as a Jazz fan

Continuing on the subject of favorite recordings, the following feature is on my latest to fall into this category and I’ve had it for less than a day, but in this short period of time, I’ve already played in through three times as I worked on this piece.

“Locked in” might be considered an understatement for a group that played together on a regular basis for 12 years from 1956-1968, but there are few better examples of the David Brubeck Quartet’s cohesive insistency than the music they recorded in performance at Kongresshaus, Zurich, Switzerland on the evening of September 28, 1964.

And what makes this music even more compelling is the outstanding audio quality of this recording.

Brubeck chromatic escapades and rhythmic displacements; Desmond’s dry martini sound and improvised flights of fancy; Morello’s crackling snare drum and exploding bass drum; Gene Wright’s stentorian tone and metronomic bass lines - all have never been so vividly captured on record, even in the studio!

The recording itself is an experience and then there is the music on it. The program for the evening is a combination of originals from the various “impressions of” and “time out” Columbia LPs, exquisite takes on Pennies from Heaven and You Go to My Head and the inevitably climatic Morellian drum solo on Shimawa, all of which come together to form a Jazz concert masterpiece.

Yvan Ischer further documents this special evening in the following liner notes to Dave Brubeck Quartet Zurich 1964 [TCB 0422 Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series No. 42 . You can locate order information about the CD at

The Air and the Earth

Two chords with a touch of Debussy-like impressionism, a brief but very delicate and engaging introduction by Dave Brubeck and the concert immediately brings you to a world of magic conjured up by one of the most beautiful sounds in the history of music: Paul Desmond's alto saxophone, which transcends his own song "Audrey" from the very first notes. But before embarking into the music, we may need a little flashback.

At the time of this recording in 1964 in Zurich, the collaborations between Dave and Paul were not new and had known many nights and early mornings wrapped in the haze of Pall Malls and the vapors of Dewar's. the saxophonist's two key trademarks...  The pair had first crossed paths in 1944 in a military musical context where they jammed for quite some time, starting off with "Rosetta". Desmond was taken with the fact that this strange piano player appeared to plav only extremely bizarre but very intriguing chords. And when he went up to Brubeck at the end of the evening saying "Man! You grooved me with those nutty changes!", Dave, whom Paul would later refer to as "the Indian", funnily replied: "White man speaks with forked tongue."

They later met again and interacted around 1949-1950. Then, Paul, who in turn had hired Dave, cut his pay in half one evening in order to gamble in nearby Reno... which naturally somewhat froze Brubeck's feelings towards Desmond. Not long after the disagreement, Paul left California and joined pianist Jack Fina's group for a stint in New York. However, when he heard a radio broadcast featuring the trio of his buddy Brubeck, a premonition appeared like a warning light in his head and he made the decision to contact Dave about forming a quartet. Dave, who had chosen to live a quiet life as a model father, started by forbidding his wife lola to let Paul step foot in the house if he should stop by unannounced... But the day Paul did decide to show up at the front door, Dave was in the middle of hanging out the children's diapers in the backyard, lola let Paul in, Dave expressed annoyance at the intrusion but, bit by bit, he allowed himself to be convinced; this was especially because Paul promised the young parents to babysit whenever they needed a bit of time to themselves... with the result that, until he was 12, young Michael Brubeck, to whom Paul left his saxophone after his death, believed that Paul was his uncle!

And thus one of the most stunning musical collaborations came to be in 1951 with the creation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet! The convergence of two totally opposite personalities and two utterly incompatible lifestyles... and yet... they understood, (almost) at once, just like the song says, that they "could make such beautiful music together". And so Brubeck the professor and Desmond the poet opportunistically decided to set out a deal to reunite their musical paths. It was thus contractually decided that the agreement forbade Brubeck from ever firing Desmond, it ensured Brubeck's status as group leader, and gave Desmond twenty percent of all profits generated from the quartet! The greatest part in all this being that even though the contract had been drafted, Brubeck was the sole signatory, since Desmond never cared to sign it back! Which never prevented Brubeck from being true to his word.

Indeed, the quartet lived an exceptional musical story from 1951 until 1967, enjoying tremendous success. Even after the group officially broke up as the result of different plans by the two men, Bru and Paul met up again for new tours and occasional glorious reunions. That said, a quartet is formed of four individuals and it is important not to belittle the essential contribution of the rhythm section, Gene Wright-Joe Morello. This version of the group certainly had the best balance, the strongest swing and the best interaction of any of the Brubeck quartets! For the Zurich concert, moreover, the sound quality of the recording is so good that the drums and the double bass have rarely before been so present and strikingly transcribed. This lets us discover the nuances and variations in volume in the playing of Joe Morello, the utterly captivating drummer. By the way, when his future leader hoped to hire him, as he was "on vacation" from Marian McPartland's trio, Joe replied quite frankly to Brubeck's proposal: "I heard a few of the pieces you did recently and a metronome could do that... so you know, Dave, I would go with you, but only if you feature me." And Dave, who felt that this new drummer could change the course of his musical career, did more than just keep his promise, since at the beginning of their collaboration, Desmond himself was upset by the fact that Morello was getting so much exposure. And it took a bit of diplomacy and a number of months of Brubeck trying, until the drummer and the alto player finally became not only comrades on the stage but also lifelong friends, according to Dave. As for Gene Wright, he was suggested by Morello, who personally felt that he could build up an ideal partnership with this "senatorial" companion. And it was indeed the drummer who invented the nickname "The Senator (from Bulgaria)" during a brief verbal sparring match as a joke on an airplane trip, when he made up the place from which his companion hailed. This nickname was the source of several colorful anecdotes for Gene, who would become the organizer and technical manager for the quartet when on tour, so that often he was welcomed in picturesque little countries as a real "Senator", together with all the honors and fuss due to his rank!

Moreover, the presence of Gene Wright in the Brubeck quartet was not socially innocent at a time when racial mixes were not always seen in a positive light, despite the efforts initiated by Benny Goodman as early as 1935, when he welcomed Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson to complete his quartet with Gene Krupa. The year 1959 was also special in this regard: four records or historical musical albums in different Jazz styles each included a unique racial "oddity" who truly displeased the four groups' fans. If the "Senator" was the only black member of Brubeck's group, Jimmy Knepper was the only white man with Mingus, as was Bill Evans with Miles Davis and Charlie Haden with Ornette Coleman. Each of these groups put out a stunning album for this milestone 1959 vintage: "Mingus Ah Hum" from the great Charles, "Kind of Blue" from Miles, "The Shape of Jazz to Come" from Ornette and, of course, the legendary album "Time Out" from the Brubeck quartet. If mentioning this racial "exception" is necessary, it helps recalling that Brubeck always had a firm and remarkable attitude when faced with attacks where he was the victim in the field. Years later, he remembered very well that kind of sad experiences during an interview with a host at BBC4: "We were playing a university and they said, "You can't go on stage with an African-American." I said, "Then we're not going on stage." The students were stamping on the floor up above the dressing room,and the louder and wilder it got, the more concerned the president of the college was getting. So he told me, "You can go, but you have to put your bass player way in the back, where he won't be too noticeable." When we walked on stage, the audience just went wild. They were so happy. And for the second tune. I told Eugene, "Your microphone is broken. Come out here and play your solo and use my microphone, in front of the band." Eugene didn't know I was plotting all this, but he came out front and we tore that place up. It was so wonderful."

For the Zurich concert we are talking about, there was no need for this type of plotting and right on from the very first notes, the ambiance was perfect and the bond between the four musicians was enlightening. Throughout the concert, there was even an exemplary quality to the perfect balance achieved among the four artists. Desmond's solos, always airy and dreamy, are marked with a natural sense of invention. Brubeck, after some nice accompanying dialogue with Desmond's alto, regularly threw himself into long sequences in heavy block chords, pushed to the edge by both the Senator and Morello in top-notch form. And when the pianist started developing up ideas, he always controlled his improvisation and mastered his solos with percussive and impressive precision. In addition, throughout the concert you could witness an impressive number of murmurs or groans of approval among the members of the trio, which expressed how these four gentlemen were in the midst of experiencing a grand evening together. Without wanting to itemize every detail that took place, because your ears will perfectly do the work for themselves, it is still important to point out the excellent balance and superb rhythmic variety among the pieces chosen that night, reproduced here in their entirety, except for of an initial rendition of "Take the 'A' Train" that was meant a bit like the warm-up piece. On the set list were two standards, "You Go to My Head" and "Pennies from Heaven", the latter allowing the two main soloists to show what tradition meant to them; "Shimwa" is by Joe Morello, who had been a violin virtuoso as a child before devoting himself to an instrument that struck him as a revelation. Largely so also because of serious vision problems that Joe would have to face throughout his life; three songs are by Brubeck, the intriguing "Cable Car", the dynamic "Thank You" and the remarkable "Koto Song", which literally enthused the audience; and finally, the inevitable "Take Five" by Paul Desmond himself and the sublime "Audrey", co-written by Paul and Dave and which reflected Desmond's true veneration for Audrey Hepburn, whom he considered the ultimate woman. So much so that when the actress was playing in a nearby theater in New York, Brubeck, half-amused and half-annoyed, but nevertheless resigned, would adjust the timing of the sets so that Paul could slip out of the club during a break, run two blocks to the theater exit and secretly admire Audrey as she was swallowed up into her limousine... Years later, long after Paul and Audrey's passing, Brubeck was told by the comedian's husband that she would listen to this piece ad infinitum and that she loved walking through her garden at sundown humming her "Audrey"... But Paul never got the chance to know it...

To tell the truth, the "Audrey" version from this Zurich concert may well be one of the most beautiful ever performed by the four band members Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Gene Wright and Joe Morello. And after you have listened to it for a few times, since this song leaves you with a haunting taste for more, it would no longer come as a surprise if you were to find yourself humming this gentle tune somewhere in your garden or in any other poetic - or desmondish - place….”

Yvan lscher
Journalist - Producer / RTS - Radio Television Suisse
Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series Consultant
July 2016

The following youtube will provide you with a complete listening of the CD.

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