On Dave Brubeck
Liam Noble writes: As I ponder on what exactly this piece of writing is going to consist of, I am listening to one of his last albums, the solo “Indian Summer” and it is repeatedly catching me out. “You’ll Never Know”, initially delivered at a beautifully leisurely pace, suddenly darkens as a note moves just one step away from where I could have sworn it was going…then another…but he’s resolved it again…what is going on in the coda? Massive right hand chords against a left hand pedal suggest Debussy (the edgy kind, not the pastel shades I often associate him with), yet with a gentle turn of phrase it’s back to the comforting world of the opening. 4 minutes 40 seconds…there are 16 of these miniature gems on the album, and I can hear him thinking on every one.
The piano sings when he plays, it always did, perhaps a bit too much for some people. Brubeck’s music is never “dark”, it’s never dogmatic or theoretical, it never “takes a position”. It’s welcoming, but once in the comforts of its environment, there are edges, corners, angles in amongst the gentle stride and lush delivery. I’m reminded of his early octet, where jazz rubs shoulders with classical forms passed on from his one-time teachers Darius Milhaud and Arnold Schoenberg, two important figures in the new music modernism of the twenties. Before his explorations of unorthodox time signatures, Brubeck was already mixing his love of black American music with this resolutely European influence to produce something new and exotic.
Perhaps it’s this that always drew me to his music: a quietly spoken individualism born of a sense of curiosity about music in all its forms. When I sent him my trio’s album of versions of his tunes(*), he sent me a letter that was full of generosity and warmth. He seemed more interested in what he could learn from our interpretations of his tunes than whether we had done them justice. That blew me away, it still does. I’m still learning from that letter.
For a while there were tentative plans to do a gig at the Brubeck Institute in California with my trio, but practicalities (money) got in the way. So I nearly met the man himself; now I wish I had just gone of my own accord. I don’t know what I would have said to him, but I would have liked to return his kindness to me somehow. For me Brubeck always embodied the artist behind the showman, taking the lonely path – despite his commercial success-, seeking out the angles beneath the curves. We are expected to take so much at face value and consume it as quickly as possible these days. Don’t do that with Dave Brubeck’s music, you might miss everything.
(*)Liam Noble’s 2009 CD Brubeck (Basho Records).