Dave Brubeck turns 91 tomorrow, December 6, and Columbia Records is releasing a CD box containing all 19 of the Columbia albums that his quartet recorded in the studio. The earliest, Brubeck Time, was released in 1955 but recorded in the fall of 1954, three years after Brubeck and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond formed the quartet. The last, Anything Goes: Brubeck Plays Cole Porter, was released in 1967 a few months before the quartet ended one of the most successful runs of any band in jazz history.
A few of the albums in the box have been widely available since their initial release. They include Brubeck Time; Time Out, which contained the chart-busting Take Five;" Brandenburg Gate Revisited; and Jazz Impressions of Japan with the enchanting minor blues Koto Song." Some of the other albums made brief appearances in the United States, but after the LP era were available on CD only as expensive Japanese imports that were often hard to find. Among the rarities are the Porter collection and two albums released in 1965, Angel Eyes, songs by Matt Dennis; and My Favorite Things, a set of Richard Rodgers compositions, both sublime. Also never before on CD for US release are Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A., Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Bossa Nova U.S.A., Jazz Impressions of New York, and two thematically related albums, Gone With the Wind and Southern Scene. Why have they been withheld from digital release until now? Perhaps the Sony/Columbia accountants could explain.
The problem for thrifty shoppers who want the previously unavailable CDs, of course, is that they are part of the $149.95 package and not available singly, at least for now. If you have a full shelf of Brubecks except for those gems, is it worth the expense to duplicate the others? Based on the quality of the playing in the Dennis, Rodgers and New York albums, it may be. Not having had the LPs of those albums for years, I am eagerly reabsorbing, among other highlights, the smoky Sixth Sense" from Jazz Impressions of New York, Desmond's jaunty solo on Dennis's Let's Get Away From it All," Brubeck and bassist Gene Wright challenging each other in serious fun on a quick romp through Darktown Strutters Ball," Joe Morello adapting himself to Indian finger drumming on Calcutta Blues."
The booklet included in the box contains tune listings and discographical information for each album, but no narrative, no essays placing the music in perspective. It has a few informal session photographs from Columbia's 30th Street studio in Manhattan, including this one showing the quartet and, on the left, producer Teo Macero. Concert audiences rarely saw Desmond having this much fun.
The set traces Brubeck's productive and often exhilarating years with Columbia before the quartet disbanded. It is not comprehensive. Their first album for the label, Jazz Goes to College (1954), was a concert recording, as were several other albums recorded on tour in Europe and the United States. The last of those concert recordings, from tapes in Brubeck's collection, has just been released as Their Last Time Out. It was recorded December 26, 1967, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, almost literally on the eve of disbandment.
The two-CD set is primarily of pieces the quartet had played dozens, if not hundreds, of times. It includes a These Foolish Things" with the quartet weavingabstractions that came naturally to Brubeck and Desmond after decades of further developing the ESP that characterized their collaborations from the beginning. It also has La Paloma Azul," which became a Desmond favorite in the years after the quartet broke up and he also recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet in their 1971 Christmas Eve Town Hall concert. His brief solo here reduces the piece to its harmonic essence. The sensitivity of Brubeck's solo belies the frequent accusation that he was a keyboard basher. The Pittsburgh Take The 'A' Train," shorter than some of Brubeck's many other recorded versions, has Morello particularly vigorous in the exchange of four-bar phrases the two always enjoyed. This You Go to My Head" may not equal the breathtaking 1952 recording the early quartet made at Boston's Storyville in 1952, but it has moments of fine lyricism from Desmond and intriguing rhythmic displacements by Brubeck. By this time, Morello had only to set two bars of 5/4 time in introducing Take Five" to draw applause. Desmond's solo on his famous composition alternating altissimo and basso profundo phrasesincludes a passage of low tones startlingly reminiscent of Earl Bostic or, perhaps, Desmond's early inspiration Pete Brown. In all, the Pittsburgh concert is a substantial addition to the Brubeck discography.