Tuesday, November 12, 2019

"COMPADRES WITH B R U B E C K" - Jerome Klinkowitz, Listen Gerry Mulligan: An Aural Narrative in Jazz

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Although the billing of the group is ‘The Dave Brubeck Trio featuring Gerry Mulligan,’ Brubeck invariably refers to it as “the quartet.” He is thinking of it now in more long range terms than when it was first put together in the spring of 1968 to play a few concerts in Charlotte, New Orleans and Mexico City. Then Mulligan seemed to be a visitor whose place might be taken by someone else at other concerts. But he is settling in as a regular part of the format.

‘I never thought that things would work out this way with Gerry,’ Dave admitted. ‘He hates piano players.’”
- Willis Johnson, liner notes to Blues Roots, CBS CS 9749].

This post deals with an interlude in the career of two of Modern Jazz’s most significant innovators, one which cast them together on and off over a five year period [1968-72] and resulted in five LPs with Jack Six on bass and drummer Alan Dawson on which they create some of the most original solos in their storied careers.

Both Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan were equally accomplished as instrumentalists as well as composers, but it was the latter skill in support of one another that took them to a higher level of improvisation on these recordings.

The exuberance, energy and enthusiasm between the two is almost palpable. Sometimes it gets to a point where it bubbles over. “Gerry,” Dave explained, “loves to play and he gets very impatient. He keeps coming in on my solos all the time and I’m kind of digging it. Paul Desmond never interrupted me and I never interrupted Paul. But now I am beginning to interrupt Gerry.” 

“In the old quartet, Paul and I left each other alone in our solos. For awhile we had some improvised counterpoint but that kind of faded away because we liked the rhythm guys to stay out of it and they got bored.”

“But in this group nobody cares if the bass player is on the roof or if the drummer keeps the beat, so we can make the transition to complete freedom. Now we’re going more and more to free improvisation. Sometimes we really sound like this new approach, but the way we do it is harder because we keep a structure underneath so the listener has something to relate to.” [ Excerpts from Willis Johnson’s liner notes to Blues Roots, CBS CS 9749].

© Copyright ® Jerome Klinkowitz, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The spring of 1968 found Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck in parallel situations at similar points in their musical careers. Although a few years older than the baritone saxophonist, Brubeck had risen to prominence almost simultaneously with Mulligan. Their two quartets helped set the tone for fifties jazz, and into the sixties both players continued to develop in styles building on the principles of "white" jazz music—that is, with techniques drawing more on the classical European approach than on African or black American influences. 

As American society was itself transformed in the years surrounding 1968, this orientation became more critical, for while broad segments of the culture were turning to a more rhythm-and-blues-based music, Mulligan sought pop roots in the Beatles and Roger Miller, while the Brubeck quartet's hiply intellectual penchant for tweaking the nose of pop culture with such projects as Dave Digs Disney (which actually made successful jazz renditions of such tunes as "Heigh Ho" and "Some Day My Prince Will Come") continued unabated with such albums as Gone with the Wind (which included "Camptown Races") and Anything Goes! The Dave Brubeck Quartet Plays Cole Porter. For the general public, Brubeck's quartet had meant "jazz" for seventeen years, and its readily identifiable sound and stylistic approach guaranteed the success of these otherwise novel projects.

This strong indentifiability, however, could easily turn into a rut, making other styles of expression unlikely or impossible. And so in 1967 Brubeck disbanded his quartet, which had featured Paul Desmond, Gene Wright, and Joe Morello for so many years that their collective presence had become a virtual trademark of mainstream jazz, and turned instead to several classically based individual projects. His situation, then, matched Mulligan's, though for different reasons. Gerry's Concert Jazz Band did not record after December 1962, but not for reasons such as its leader's wish to explore new frontiers, unfettered by his previous style. Instead, economic demands had nipped the CJB almost in the bud, just as cancer had taken Judy Holiday's life before she and Gerry could collaborate on more than half-a-dozen recorded songs and one produced album featuring their material and others'. Nevertheless, Brubeck and Mulligan found themselves suddenly alone in 1968, uninvolved in ongoing groups and gigs for the first time in their professional lives.

Yet they were still Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, and by spring the country's leading jazz promoter, George Wein, was approaching Brubeck to collect on a promise to appear at the Mexican version of Wein's Newport Jazz Festival. Because a similar package celebrating the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City soon expanded the commitment to four additional appearances, Brubeck decided to forgo touring as a single and assemble a group instead. Bassist Jack Six had worked with him on his classical performances, and George Wein suggested drummer Alan Dawson. Because Mulligan was already being included on the tour as a featured attraction, Brubeck elected to meld the two acts as "The Dave Brubeck Trio Featuring Gerry Mulligan." With two warm-up concerts in Charlotte and New Orleans, the four players set out for Mexico and the album that would appear as Compadres: The Dave Brubeck Trio Featuring Gerry Mulligan (Columbia CS-9704).

Brubeck's and Mulligan's histories had intersected at several previous points, but their unison was still surprising — and, to the anticipation of some ears, potentially jarring. Their respective groups had shared concert stages many times before, dating back to the California Concerts program of 1954 when the Brubeck quartet would play the evening's first half followed by Mulligan's combo after the intermission. And of course Mulligan and Desmond had recorded two full albums together. There had even been an occasion, when Desmond was temporarily out of action with dental work, in which Mulligan took his place within the Brubeck quartet and its repertoire. Yet Mulligan meeting Brubeck would be an affair entirely different from a blowing session with Paul Desmond, for it had been in affiliation with the classically trained pianist that found Desmond at his abstract brainiest. Mulligan had made his first claim to fame by publicly renouncing the piano and its supposedly inhibiting effect; now he was to work in tandem with one of the era's most distinctive and imposing keyboard figures—not a light-fingered session man willing to add the minimum of rhythmic fills but a self-described heavy-handed and chordally inclined master, whose voice and presence in the quartet had been even more forceful than the group's horn. Mulligan himself took pride in the commanding presence and distinctive voice of his own solo playing, plus he was bringing three compositions to fill out nearly half of this first album's program. The possibilities for a collision were certainly present.

• Dave Brubeck-Gerry Mulligan: "Jumping Bean," "Adios, Mari-quita Linda," "Indian Song," "Tender Woman," "Amapola," "Lullaby de Mexico," "Sapito," and "Recuerdo," from Compadres, Columbia CS-9704, May 1968. Gerry Mulligan: baritone saxophone; Dave Brubeck: piano; Jack Six: bass; Alan Dawson: drums.

Although the two players never did collide, towering strengths makes Compadres and the four other American albums (recorded through 1972) successful. Their debut number, Mulligan's own "Jumping Bean," depends upon it for effect. No easy Mulligan Meets Brubeck tune in the style of the simple little ditties composed to get a blowing session underway, this piece is rhythmically complex and hard hitting in the sharp attack it demands from both lead instruments, creating a situation in which both the piano and baritone sax must play in a percussive manner. For this attack to work, neither player can back off in favor of the other; like a synchronized combat team, each must slug it out ahead with an implicit trust that the other will be in place. Mulligan's solo in particular sustains this mood; where he might be expected to drift, he takes direction from the song's emphatic rhythm, a stutter-and-clash affair that precludes lots of lazily flowing notes and demands that he approach his horn like its bass clef cousins in the bottom reaches of the orchestra. Between Brubeck's solid left hand and Jack Six's determined playing, the only style open for Mulligan's work is within their rhythmic structures. But rather than feeling confined, his solo assumes direction and functions as the equivalent of Brubeck's pounding piano.

Good pacing of a concert demands contrasting material, and in structuring the album's first side Mulligan and Brubeck turn to the slower, smoothly swinging (over a Latin rhythm) "Adios, Mariquita Linda." Its melody is a strong and familiar one, coming directly from the Mexican culture to which the two composers refer in the originals they've brought along. Partially for this reason, Mulligan keeps his solo very close to the melody; but his faithful reflection of the song's melodic nature is also a sign that he likes it, and much like his playing on the Beatles and Roger Miller tunes from a few albums back his confident playing of the song's original line confirms that there has been something in it akin to his own way of handling a score. How Mulligan handles a song that invites more inventive soloing is made clear on the next number, Brubeck's "Indian Song," which returns to the harshly percussive style with which the album began, here augmented by the drummer's imposition of a 6/8 time signature. Within this radically different context Mulligan takes pains to construct a definite, clear melodic line of his own, for in its rhythmic busyness this is just what the song itself lacks. Thanks to Mulligan's strong solo, Brubeck can take a more contemplative turn himself, exploring a set of classical exercises that the number never could have borne without Gerry's self-invented melody intervening.

The balance of Compadres benefits from this complementarity. When the number demands it, the two men can play together forcefully, their two instruments creating as much drive and presence as a much larger ensemble. Such is the effect in "Amapola," the closest they come to straight out blowing on this first LP. More often, the two support each other's more subtle work, especially on an older Mulligan composition that had been waiting for just such an appropriate premiere: "Lullaby de Mexico," a delicate composition in the manner of Brubeck's own "Tender Woman" from the first side. In both cases the numbers' careful construction and almost fragile structure demand that the two players work in almost duet form, each offering a gentle cushion to the other's gestures toward a melody that would collapse if overstated. Mulligan's clear lead distinguishes both pieces, and his solos sustain the compositional mood throughout. His own "Lullaby" asks bari and piano to play together at the end, and their gentleness is all the more remarkable in view of the immense power unleashed in earlier numbers.

If Compadres has a weak link, it is Mulligan's "Sapito," which comes across as a novelty piece; moreover, it’s faster pace and plethora of notes force the bari to struggle a bit, hardly a situation that Hatters its composer. But this solitary lapse is more than compensated by the beauty of "Recuerdo," Brubeck's tonally haunting and rhythmically complex ballad. Though piano and sax begin the piece together, the two players soon divide for their own approaches — Mulligan taking a strongly melodic solo, Brubeck relying on his personal, classical style both for thematic and rhythmic improvisation. From the perspective of two decades, the material chosen for Compadres might seem a bit patronizing; although George Wein made much of Brubeck's reputation in Mexico, that country's audiences were not treated to the master playing his own famous material but rather horsing around with supposedly nativistic songs, which to some ears could sound like a vaudevillian parody of Hispanic rhythms and themes. To their credit, neither Brubeck nor Mulligan let their solos be over directed by this Mexicali impulse, but that fact makes it even more evident that the Spanish flavor of their tunes is mere window dressing. Only on Brubeck's "Indian Song" and Mulligan's "Lullaby de Mexico" is their playing strongly influenced by the song itself, and in both cases these compositions predate the tour's occasion. And so, even as Mulligan makes a decided turn away from the 1960s promotional style that had threatened to compromise his work, the festival influence lingers as a pressure to slant material and performances to a show-biz impression of what audiences want and expect.

• Dave Brubeck-Gerry Mulligan: "Limehouse Blues," "Journey," "Cross Ties," "Broke Blues," "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" "Movin' Out," and "Blues Roots," from Blues Roots, Columbia CS-9749, 1969. Same personnel as May 1968 above.

Of the five American-issued Brubeck-Mulligan albums, four are concert or festival performances (three of them abroad, where the pressures to conform to supposed audience expectations are even stronger). Hence their single LP done in the studio, Blues Roots, takes on a strongly different character from the others, since for once the two giants are immediately responsible only to themselves. The result is by far their most idiosyncratic album and perhaps Mulligan's most avant-gardist project to date, for the seven cuts push the blues structure to its most abstract limits. Each number chooses one facet —  rhythm, melody, the chromatic nature of chord changes — and explores it with a thoroughness usually not found outside of the classical conservatory. Such a mode comes naturally to the formally trained Brubeck, a student of Darius Milhaud, but for Mulligan — who learned his theory in the bands of Tommy Tucker and Johnny Warrington — the undertakings of Blues Roots make for a radically new experience. On his Jimmy Witherspoon album Mulligan had explored the blues from its roots in popular culture, but now more abstract and theoretical questions were being brought to the table. For the opener, "Limehouse Blues," the percussive aspect of the idiom gets major, almost exclusive emphasis. Brubeck takes the first phrase by literally pounding out a single chord in place of the song's melodic line, at the same time that Mulligan reduces his own instrument to its most basic function, sustaining a bottom-of-his-horn low note throughout. As the piece develops, the two players augment rather than develop their roles, Brubeck's piano taking on a syncopated striking of two chords while Mulligan's bari hits on just the opposite beat to create a solid wall of sound, nearly all of which is percussive in nature. The effect is intentionally jarring, not at all what listeners have come to expect from this classic at the center of jazz's most traditional canon, but appropriate nevertheless as a distillation of the song's key element — much like an infrared photograph that highlights the most prominent features of a topography, or an expressionistic canvas capturing the more extreme reaction of a painter's subconscious feelings.

How important that percussive effect is becomes clear with the second number, Mulligan's own "Journey," which forgoes all except the most casual rhythmic support in order to emphasize the lyrical bluesiness of his horn. Here his playing is relaxed and more characteristically simple, which yields an interesting result: at this pace, with the rhythm flowing smoothly instead of percussively forceful. Mulligan's songwriting capabilities carry his own solo through to its lyric completion, while in these circumstances Brubeck, forced to a lighter touch, relies on the conservatory approach of chordal permutations and rhythmic symmetry. Yet Brubeck proves himself equally abstract, albeit in a more modernistic way, on his own composition, "Cross Ties." Played in a brisk 3/4 (which yields the rhythmic feeling of 5, even though the solos and melody take a three-to-the-bar cast), the piano begins by playing on top of the rhythm but gradually drifting away from it into stutters and spurts of percussively phrased lines. Mulligan takes these at face value and adds his own spice to the potpourri, much as Paul Desmond delighted in doing on the Two of a Mind LP. Mulligan goes to the extent of adopting Desmond's practice of double-tracking a third melodic line (at which point the rhythm backs off to allow the piano line and the two baris to create an atonal, partially arhythmic effect). When the bass joins them with a fourth line, while the drums introduce various other rhythms to which the piano responds, the blues structure is stretched almost beyond recognizable form.

This peak of abstraction is sustained through Teo Macero's "Broke Blues," a five-minute exercise in which Brubeck (apparently on harpsichord) sets a classical mode within which Mulligan plays a baroque line, much like the Bach-inspired numbers from the Brubeck quartet's earlier Jazz Impressions of Eurasia LP. What anchors the Age of Enlightenment approach is the fact that all four instruments play constantly throughout the piece, with no apparent solos by any one instrument. Rather, in the Bach tradition, all four solo simultaneously, the interweavings of their lines taking complementary paths thanks to the composition's rationalistic design.

With the album's second canonical blues, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," Brubeck and Mulligan take on the challenge of another piece whose traditionally almost defies any further distillation. Johnny Hodges's composition does survive almost to the end, when after some legitimate swinging by both Brubeck and Mulligan the piano starts wandering away from the tune's loping pace in favor of some random-sounding phrases that, try as they might, fail to deconstruct the song. A faster pace keeps things moving beyond such temptations in Brubeck's "Movin' Out," where Mulligan's horn stretches the outer limits of each four-bar change without ever sounding intellectually dense. By comparison, Mulligan's experiments with the chromatic structure of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" are more extreme, yet when the piano and bari get together for some polyphony toward the end of Brubeck's song the tonality once again begins to wander. It makes sense, therefore, that the album concludes with Mulligan's "Blues Roots," the solid wailing of which prompts Brubeck to lay copper strips across his instrument's strings to make it sound like a thumbtacked honky-tonk piano. Mulligan's playing emphasizes the four-to-the-bar beat, enhanced by piano, bass, and drums hitting the rhythmic roots while his sax does a minimal amount of sliding around in between.

As on the Compadres album, Blues Roots distinguishes itself as anything but a traditional horn and piano-trio album. Once again, Brubeck's instrument has spotlighted itself as much as Mulligan's; within the catalog of Gerry's work, only his meeting with Thelonious Monk carries the same impression, for in terms of relative dominance he might as well have been playing with another horn.

• Dave Brubeck-Gerry Mulligan; "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," "The Sermon on the Mount," "Indian Song," "Limehouse Blues," and "Lullaby de Mexico," from Live at the Berlin Philharmonie, Columbia KC-32143, 7 November 1970. Same personnel as May 1968 above.

The distillation factor yields especially good results on the next Brubeck-Mulligan album, taken from performances during the Berlin Jazz days in 1970. With one exception, the selections are drawn from Compadres and Blues Roots, but finalities of each previous album cross-fertilize each other and produce a synthesis of solid performative jazz. "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and especially "Limehouse Blues" lose some of their avant-garde abstraction in favor of the Mexican album's more exuberant sense of swing, while "Indian Song" is redistilled to emphasize its rhythmic properties, and "Lullaby de Mexico" is explored in terms of dynamics and tonalities, its compositional parts being disassembled before the audience's ears.

Like the Compadres effort, Live at the Berlin Philharmonic is solidly presentational. The emphasis is on maintaining a sense of swing throughout, and any tendencies to tamper with structure serve only to energize further the "live" nature of this performance. As if to emphasize the roundly swinging nature of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," Mulligan jumps right into the first phrase with a super-imposition of the Ellington baud's other rolling number, "Don't Get Around Much Any More"; both his and Brubeck's solos maintain this expansive sense of swing until just before the end, when some sax-piano polyphony threatens to get abstract, until the out chorus brings things back to the solid Johnny Hodges idiom. Brubeck's "Indian Song," one of the more successful pieces from Compadres, is here presented with an even greater emphasis on rhythm, to the extent that Alan Dawson's long drum solo fits in naturally with its presentation. In both numbers Brubeck's tendencies toward the percussive aspects of piano do not become a matter in themselves but are instead enlisted in support of the song's rhythm — swinging in the first, staccato in the second. It is a sure sign of the new quartet beginning to gel.

There may be some slackening of avant-gardist effort in this fresh synthesis, but not too much. The cacophonous pounding that made "Limehouse Blues" such a jarring affair on Blues Roots is now limited to just the first few bars, after which Brubeck settles back into such a traditional treatment that the festival audience can applaud in recognition of its familiar theme; what gestures there are toward an abstract understanding of the song's percussive and tonal elements are reserved for occasional interpolations with the baritone, a much less dogmatic approach than taken on Blues Roots. 
When Brubeck and Mulligan wish to highlight a special effect, it becomes the quality of sound itself; "Lullaby de Mexico" is reshaped for this performance to emphasize its dynamics and phraseology, while Brubeck's original (and the album's one new piece) "The Sermon on the Mount" forgoes any developing rhythmic and melodic structure in favor of spotlighting the stirring beauty of Mulligan's deep-voiced horn, the playing of which comes closest to creating something out of nothing.

• Dave Brubeck-Gerry Mulligan: "Blues for Newport," "Take Five," and "Open the Gates," from The Last Set at Newport, Atlantic SD-1607, 3 July 1971. Same personnel as May 1968 above.

Following their 1970 Berlin appearance, Mulligan and Brubeck collaborated on two more albums, each of them taped at festival appearances: The Last Set at Newport from 3 July 1971, and the reunion with Paul Desmond given the apt title We're All Together Again For the First Time, a collection of takes from late October and early November 1972 in Berlin, Paris, and Rotterdam. On these LPs Mulligan's direction is clear, taking less of a creative role in the Brubeck combo while showing evidence of writing for his own new group, which had recorded the Age of Steam album in the months preceding Newport. Because of the dominance of Brubeck's own material and his strong playing on the first LP and the presence of Desmond on the second, these productions fit more squarely in the canon of the Dave Brubeck Quartet than they do in Mulligan's—for once the group's formal name, "The Dave Brubeck Quartet Featuring Gerry Mulligan," seems appropriate.

Comprising just three numbers. The Last Set at Newport is definitely Brubeck's affair, from the retrospective look at "Take Five" (the first time Mulligan would be asked to play an old Brubeck classic, and a Paul Desmond composition at that) through the opening "Blues for Newport" (a blues credited to Brubeck) to the leader's symphonically based "Open the Gates (Out of the Way of the People)," which complements his "Sermon on the Mount" from the Berlin festival.

The blues piece is the album's most impressive contribution, one of those rare performances in which creativity has been stimulated rather than complicated by the festival context. Bill Chase's electronically dominant fusion group had preceded the quartet on the bill, and Dave confessed to organizer George Wein that he feared he couldn't compete with its sound level. Advised to go out there and wail, Brubeck and Mulligan deliver their most energetic playing in the service of an extremely percussive, heavy-handed blues that despite its heavy beat never gives up on swinging. Brubeck's playing can even be said to rock, while Mulligan throws the pianist's playing into even higher contrast by taking the better part of his own solo in several variations of rhythmic stop-time.

"Take Five," in its fame as a virtual identifier of the Brubeck quartet at its peak, is the greatest challenge to Mulligan's playing. He exerts his own personality almost at once, slurring and swinging the bridge more than Paul Desmond did on the quartet's hit record, hut then backing off for the rest of the tune, playing his own riffs in response to the time signature instead of constructing a careful melodic line as had his predecessor. That the term "predecessor" itself comes into play shows how the innovative aspects of the Mulligan-Brubeck collaboration were beginning to run their course, with the future remaining more solidly in Brubeck's hands as the baritone sax player's creative genius begins looking elsewhere. This disposition is no more apparent than on Brubeck's "Open the Gates," where Mulligan doesn't really solo at all, his role being reserved for the symphonic duty of joining in with the leader's piano at its peak to create the number's orchestral height.

• Dave Brubeck-Paul Desmond-Gerry Mulligan: "Truth," "Unfinished Woman," "Take Five," and "Rotterdam Blues," from We're All Together Again for the First Time, Atlantic SD-1641, 28 October and 4 November 1972. Same personnel as May 1968 above, with the addition of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.

The European reunion album with Paul Desmond is just that, an occasion for bringing together the key elements of Brubeck's 1950-1967 and 1968-1972 periods with an eye toward his and Mulligan's futures. That those futures were heading in remarkably different directions is clear from the album's two new numbers, "Truth" and "Unfinished Woman." The former is a Brubeck oratorio, subtitled "Planets Are Spinning," and of all the quasi-classical pieces Brubeck had brought to his collaboration this one is by far the least jazz oriented. Mulligan and Desmond attempt conventional enough solos, but Brubeck's performance speaks of the modernist conservatory throughout. Its back-to-back position with Mulligan's new composition makes for an especially strong contrast, for while Brubeck was heading in a classical direction, Mulligan's piece was one of the first numbers written for his Ark/Orchestra, a fusion group that would propel its leader through the 1970s and 1980s. The number, based on the repetition in two chords of a simple riff, outlines Mulligan's new goals, which include a fresh emphasis on rhythm and a greater interest in sustaining sounds (as opposed to constructing elaborate melodies). His solo builds on these new influences, holding single notes much longer and limiting his phrasing to the major chord, not shifting the direction of his line until the chord structure itself changes.

The balance of We're All Together consists of the original Brubeck quartet (without Mulligan) doing a reprise of one of their more famous numbers, "Koto Song," plus Gerry joining in for a fresh version of "Take Five," in which a softer approach brings new attention to the melody. "Rotterdam Blues" is an improvised encore, as is "Sweet Georgia Brown," the latter lasting just one minute. The blues piece is good-humored barrelhouse playing, in which some of Mulligan's favorite licks from the Meeting sessions of a decade and a half before resurface. But with Brubeck's sixty-second solo curtain call, the lights come down on this period of collaboration—a workshop exercise of sorts that not only sustained the two great musicians through a difficult transitional period but allowed them both to refine key aspects of their playing, reaffirming their jazz roots no matter what the nature of the group's material.”

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