Dave Brubeck – Lullabies
(Verve 3514268. CD Review by Liam Noble)
In his liner notes to this typically unassuming album, Dave Brubeck remembers his mother playing to him and his siblings as they drifted off to sleep, a practice he later continued with his own children and grandchildren. Brubeck’s mother also believed in prenatal influence, playing music to her children in the womb. There’s something, evidently, about hearing music in a kind of peripheral consciousness that holds a special relevance here, a process of both learning and imparting music that relies on gradual immersion rather than active study. And this recording plays like a soundtrack to half-remembered dreams, melodies floating in and out of focus through clouds of harmonic invention and lush textures.
There’s a feeling that Brubeck started out meaning to play these tunes pretty straight, but then couldn’t help himself.
In Philip Clark’s recently-published, excellent biography we see how Brubeck’s single-minded vision of how an album should sound played an enormous part in his success, and the pacing and contrast here is similarly perfect. As always, it’s an outwardly comfortable listen, and will doubtless be on many coffee house playlists, but it’s better than that. Much better.
In the opening version of Brahms’s famous Lullaby the filigree details of the composer’s own inner parts are simplified a little as if to say “look, Brahms isn’t that different to Richard Rodgers or George Gershwin!” In the middle he comes up with a melody so catchy that I have to check it isn’t part of the original piece. When It’s Sleepy Time Down South is in more traditional territory, with traces of Fats Waller (and perhaps Errol Garner) and while Over The Rainbow seems to be played pretty straight, when you listen a little deeper those sliding inner lines could only be Brubeck’s, and the echo of the melody chiming through the fading final chord is handled with a master’s touch.
Danny Boy is an almost dangerously corny tune choice, but the re-harmonisation here is pure taste, with just the right sprinkle of dissonance to keep things interesting. Going To Sleep is in more abstract territory, the Bartok-like sonorities suggesting that dreams may not always be so straightforwardly sweet, and yet still the melody feels almost folk-like, as if we had all known it once and have since forgotten it. The short rendition of There’s No Place Like Home seems an obvious choice, but the shadowy corners of this particular house loom large as sudden dark chords briefly envelop the melody before the light returns. These are the little miniature surprises that pepper this collection throughout, a reminder that Brubeck’s “homely” image always had both a playfully dissonant side and a darker edge.
Lullaby For Iola is positively Schumann-esque, Koto Song perfectly uses the mournful intervals of the melody (originally heard on the quartet’s Jazz Impressions Of Japan) to wander into strange, meandering territory, and All Through The Night explores some juicy two-part counterpoint, proceeding almost in the manner of a set of Beethoven variations.
Softly, William, Softly feels somehow Eastern European in its harmonies, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes could surely be a title straight from a Disney movie (in fact, it is… Cinderella), and Briar Bush is hymn-like, releasing the full force of Brubeck’s pianism in its final section. All three are simply stated, with no improvisation, as if sleep were approaching and such distractions might be unwelcome. When the Brahms Lullaby reappears at the close, it’s as a gentle bookend, transporting us back as dreams often will, changing our perception of time. I felt like I’d fallen asleep on a night bus and woken up right where I started.
Consumed in a single sitting, Lullabies becomes one long, cumulative wash of warm frequencies best experienced on headphones, not through café speakers over a cappuccino and an overpriced cake. I wonder why it took so long for Verve to release this music? It has the feel of a private session that was perhaps never intended for release, but the intimacy that results makes it a fitting tribute to a master who, at 91, was still searching for humour, beauty and adventure within the simplest of tunes.
Recorded on 4 March 2010 at Unity Gain Studio, Ft. Myers, FL
Tracks: Brahms Lullaby/ When it’s Sleepy Time Down South / Over the Rainbow / Danny Boy/ Going to Sleep / There’s no Place Like Home / Lullaby for Iola / Koto Song / All through the Night / Softly, William, Softly / A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes / Briar Bush / Sleep / Summertime / Brahms Lullaby (reprise)Lullabies is released today.