Album reviews

Dave Brubeck Quartet – ‘Live From The Northwest, 1959’

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Live From The Northwest, 1959 (RELEASE 17 Nov)
(Brubeck Editions. Album review by Liam Noble

Jazz doesn’t always announce itself upfront, but you know who this band are in a split second. The first thing that hits me is Joe Morello’s bass drum. It isn’t dropped like the “bombs” of Max Roach or Kenny Clarke, it somehow plummets, the billowing silk seeming to waft in the wake of its landing. It occupies a very specific space, and that’s true of everyone in this band, an expertly choreographed space that creates boundaries within which improvisation can still thrive, a balancing act between playing and communicating.

Gene Wright‘s sound is almost like the pedals of a Hammond organ, round and deep, but on the knotty baroque of “Two Part Contention” you can hear him getting around on the instrument in a momentary display of virtuosity. How often bass players are forgotten somehow (particularly in press reviews!) but Wright’s sound and buoyant basslines underpin all the drama. He and Morello are as much a part of the quartet’s appeal as their bandmates, playing it straight and clear to allow the intricacy of Paul Desmond’s alto and Dave Brubeck’s pianistic tangents to be clearly heard. Brubeck understood what would communicate to a broad audience, and time and time again it seems that thinning out the density of improvisation at any one point works wonders. Whenever something interesting is happening, it’s given a fairly wide berth by the rest of the band. This principle has, for better or worse, remained fairly consistent in jazz, and often to the point where there are snarky digs at whether such music even is jazz anymore. But Brubeck’s skill was in smuggling in some pretty edgy improvisation under the appealing sheen of the band’s sound, like spinach concealed in a fruit smoothie.

This quartet is, for me anyway, an innocent pleasure, full of tiny surprises that happen within a reassuringly stable framework. Like Miles and Coltrane, the styles of Desmond and Brubeck have in-built contrasts, Desmond’s self-effacing charm and liquidity giving way to the dogged and sometimes obstinate explorations of the pianist. There’s plenty for fans of his more grandiose, two-handed style here, and perhaps Brubeck leans on that a little more in his live performances. But, as ever, the counterpoint between him and Desmond when they play together is intricate and swinging.

The tunes contain few surprises, but the arrangements, often including some decidedly “un-slick” tempo changes, are always interesting without being grandiose. OK, I have to admit that the head of “When The Saints” feels a bit twee, but that’s soon forgotten as Paul Desmond carves a whole new work of art out of it, followed by the almost inevitable Brubeck deconstruction. Where Desmond’s strength is in smoothing out knotty harmonic constructions, Brubeck has a foot in the stride school with the attack to pull off something a little more percussive. “Multnomah Blues” illustrates this again, the piano riff leading into that enveloping Desmond duvet of softness. The tussle between classical music and the blues is all over this session, “Two Part Contention” easing in and out of swing in a way that didn’t seem so overt on Brubeck’s familiar solo piano rendition, but still I like the way he pulls against that bedrock of swing with Lisztian fistfuls of chords and strange arhythmic lines. It feels like the centrepiece of the record, with “The Lonesome Road” an impeccably delicate finale, the simplicity of a well-played melody sending the audience out happy.

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That “cool jazz” label never worked for me, temperature never coming into it: yes, there’s a calculated sense of laid back leisure in this music, but a sense of exploration, and the almost innocent wonder at it all, is never far away. With Brubeck’s quartet, there’s just a sense that it doesn’t have to be difficult, but can be savoured calmly in a friendly musical environment. This is entertainment, and in this way it almost harks back to the swing era, but there’s some serious and disciplined improvising here too, splinters pushing up through the veneer.

Recorded in April, 1959 at the Multnomah Jazz Club and Clark College, both in the Portland, Oregon area. 

LINK: Live From The Northwest, 1959 on Proper Music

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