Jan 29, 2011

Dave Brubeck: Legacy of a Legend

"There are, of course, the crowd-pleasers like "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk." But there are rare tracks as well..."

Label: Columbia/Legecy
Personnel: Dave Brubeck, piano/Paul Desmond, alto sax/Eugene Wright, bass/Joe Morello, drums
Genre: straight-ahead jazz
Recommended for: everyone

Dave Brubeck just celebrated his 90th birthday, and with a life as long and amazingly productive as his there are almost too many accomplishments to recount. He's one of the most critically acclaimed jazz artists of all time, known both as a brilliant pianist and composer who pioneered the use of unusual time signatures in his wonderfully lyrical and melodic compositions. He's also probably the most commercially successful jazz musician ever. His 1959 record "Time Out" was the first jazz instrumental album to sell a million copies, and "Take Five," the album's big hit, is still the biggest-selling instrumental jazz single in history. Even people who know nothing about jazz recognize "Take Five," if only because it's been used in dozens of soundtracks and commercials. 

But Brubeck's achievements don't stop there. As a white musician in a genre dominated by African-Americans, he was an early advocate for civil rights. The mixed-race quartet he led in the 1950s and 60s was often barred from performing at venues in the South, and over the years he has penned compositions inspired by both Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King. And when Brubeck graced the cover of Time magazine in 1954, he despaired that he had received such an honor before his idol Duke Ellington.

Even now, Brubeck still composes and tours. Indeed, he recently played a sold-out gig at the Blue Note in New York City just a month after having a pacemaker installed. And as he begins his 10th decade there are no shortage of tributes, including a new documentary on his life that was produced by one of his biggest fans - actor and director Clint Eastwood. The film, "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way," is named for one of his tunes; it's airing on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

Brubeck's discography is enormous, and choosing the best of his work would be a daunting task for anyone. But Columbia has made a very good attempt with the release of "Dave Brubeck - Legacy of a Legend," a two-disc compilation drawn from the label's collection of 17 Brubeck recordings. The Columbia era covers much of the work produced by Brubeck's legendary quartet of the 50s and 60s, a combo that included the effervescent alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello. Needless to say, there is plenty of great stuff here. 

There are, of course, crowd-pleasers like "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk." But there are rare tracks as well, such as a never-before-released version of "Three to Get Ready" performed at the quartet's last concert before it disbanded in 1967. There's also evidence of Brubeck's collaborations with other jazz greats, including a version of "Summer Song" with the inimitable Satchmo on vocals, taken from an out-of-print 1961 recording. Other highlights include the quartet backing singer Carmen McRae on "My One Bad Habit," and a live performance of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" featuring Gerry Mulligan and Brubeck trading solos in what amounts to a red-hot jam session.

For Brubeck neophytes, it's hard to think of a better introduction to his work than "Legacy of a Legend." But even longtime fans should find plenty to like with this release, which includes new liner notes by Brubeck's son, Darius, and a plethora of photographs of Brubeck, his family and the musicians he's worked with through the decades. Now, with Brubeck's place in the jazz pantheon firmly established, here's hoping he continues to make music, in his own sweet way, for many years to come.

-Tony Rogers

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