Taking a brief trip through the many signature “times” of Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck

I don’t have the background of a jazz expert, but I have long appreciated the experimental nature of the music, built on a flair for “fly by the seat of your pants” improvisation. To quote Wynton Marsalis (from Ken Burns’ film Jazz):

It’s an artform that can give us a peerless way of understanding ourselves. The real power of jazz, and the innovation of jazz, is that a group of people can come together and create art — improvised art — and can negotiate their agenda with each other. And that negotiation is the art.

Best known outside jazz circles for his song “Take Five,” which experimented with a 5/4 time signature and, as part of his 1959 album Time Out, fueled what became the genre’s first million-seller, Brubeck was a nimble pianist who loved employing intricate improvised arrangements built upon contrasting rhythms. Brubeck died yesterday, one day shy of his 92nd birthday, but for this music he’ll be remembered forever as one of jazz’s great innovators.

1. The Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Take Five”

Technically a “one hit wonder” in the pop realm, this song peaked at #25 on Billboard’s Hot 100 following its release in September of ’61. This version, recorded in 1966, features Brubeck performing with his quartet in Germany. This drum part is a personal favorite, as I learned to play jazz percussion in junior high, playing by ear to recordings of this, Weather Report’s “Birdland” and Charles Mingus’ “Moanin'”.

2. The Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Unsquare Dance”

Recorded on the same day Brubeck wrote it in his head while en route from his home to the recording studio, this piece in 7/4 time became a minor hit for him as well, peaking at #74 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

3. The Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Blue Rondo à la Turk

This one’s a favorite of mine, in the unusual 9/8 time signature, inspired by Brubeck’s experience hearing Turkish street musicians playing a rhythm known as the zeybeck. Interestingly, however, while the piano intro features the 2-2-2-3 beat construction of the 9/8 pattern, the saxophone and piano solos are in the basic 4/4 signature.

4. Dave Brubeck Quartet – “Eleven Four”

Written by Paul Desmond, who also wrote “Take Five,” “Eleven Four” illustrates the complexity not just of writing music in such an unusual meter as 11/4, but to also improvise while under that rhythmic constriction. This recording was part of the band’s live album At Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1963.