Today, the world lost one of the greats: Jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck died at the age of 91. Among his many musical achievements, Brubeck was the man behind the iconic jazz record Time Out, a collection of odd-meter compositions best known for the famous tune "Take Five." Time Out experimented with song-form, meter, and merged classical and jazz tonalities. It was also the first jazz record I fell in love with.
When learning jazz, transcription is everything. The best way to get good at improvising is to sit down with recordings of your favorite players and learn their solos, note for note. The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I finally got serious about the saxophone, and the first solo I transcribed was alto saxophonist Paul Desmond's famous solo on "Take Five."
It was the first of many solos I'd transcribe, but I'll never forget it. It was the first time I ever had that feeling of playing along with a master, of conceptualizing phrases that weren't my own and sounding out the changes in a way that started strange and became familiar. "Take Five" was actually composed by Desmond, not Brubeck, though from the arrangement to the form, it's still got the pianist's fingerprints all over it. It's a wonderful tune, a great performance, and one of the most enduring jazz recordings of all time.
Over the course of my time with "Take Five," I fell in love with the rest of Time Out. With Desmond on alto sax, Brubeck on piano, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums (who plays a solo on "Take Five" that actually outdoes Desmond's sax solo), Brubeck's quartet was the first full jazz ensemble I learned to identify individually by name.
The track above is "Strange Meadow Lark," which I think is my favorite tune on Time Out. It sums up the album's whole approach—a grandiose, lush piano intro that gives way to a swinging, modern tune before opening up for some blowing. And somehow, it all holds together.
It's like a more chilled-out take on the structure of "Blue Rondo a la Turk," the album's opener, and the tune that got me comfortable with counting 9/8 time. The recording (embedded here) still crops up in places from time to time—I'll always get a kick out of the football scene in Wedding Crashers where the frantic, Turkish-influenced intro riff plays.
Brubeck wasn't the most straight-up swinging pianist in the world, but that wasn't really the point—he was a thoughtful player with a deep respect for melody, and he carefully fused classical forms with jazz harmonies. He and his bands always approached improvisation with care, and used space to great effect. He knew when to play and when to lay out, and how to let the band breathe.
He was an innovator and performer to the end, and left a great legacy in his wake. The Brubeck Institute will long be a bastion for young jazz talent. His compositions will be performed for decades to come—I know I'll still be playing "In Your Own Sweet Way" at jam sessions 30 years from now.
After I graduated from music school, I spent several years teaching jazz out here in San Francisco. One of my best private students, a talented young saxophonist named Ben, started finally taking my advice about transcription to heart. He asked which solo he should transcribe first. "Take Five," I responded, without hesitation. He took it, learned it, and never looked back. Now he's in music school in New York and is probably better at saxophone than I am.
Rest in peace, Dave. Thanks for the music.