Lewis Porter has a nice article on Dave Brubeck over at WBGO, “Reconsidering the Piano Legacy of Dave Brubeck, in a Deep Dive Centennial Special.”
I’m quoted as saying, “Dave Brubeck is one of my biggest primary influences!” Certainly true. His most famous LP Time Out was an early listen and I still think it is a masterpiece after all these years. The compositional material is strikingly charismatic and well organized, the band is on the same page, the engineering is to die for. In terms of improvising, Brubeck’s modest motivic solo on “Blue Rondo a La Turk” went straight into my young brain and has resided there ever since.
Much later in my development I was astonished by the big “classical fantasias” from Jazz at Oberlin. Cecil Taylor obviously heard that side of Brubeck, and Porter has unearthed a valuable quote from Taylor talking about Brubeck for his new article. Unlike the piano playing on Time Out, I worry about the piano style on Oberlin, it seems overbearing to me, with too much classical music pushing the jazz out of the frame. That said, it’s certainly impressive and exciting, and Porter is right to argue for giving Brubeck more credit as a fearless improvisor.
Keith Jarrett was influenced by the solo piano disc of original compositions, Brubeck plays Brubeck. These wandering, lean, and contrapuntal sounds are still a great blindfold test today. (Many jazz piano students at today’s colleges sound just like Brubeck plays Brubeck. They often sound like Jazz at Oberlin as well. I don’t think they know any Brubeck, but they are drawing on the same set of European, “complex” and “progressive” references.)
Jarrett also played through the reasonably accurate folios edited by Brubeck’s brother, Howard. I did this too.
Prog Rock comes straight out of Brubeck. The Bad Plus used a lot of Prog Rock references, and our acoustic instrumentation sort of brought it back to Brubeck, although the musical material was more Rush or Yes than Brubeck.
Brubeck is famous for those “prog” odd meters, but ironically he wasn’t adept at improvising within those odd meters. In general Brubeck’s musical failings are mostly rhythmic. There’s an old joke that goes, “Since Brubeck couldn’t make it feel right in 4/4, why not add a beat and make it 5/4?” The best 50’s stuff is fine, and it reaches a peak with Time Out (it wouldn’t be a hit record if it didn’t swing) but from the mid-60’s on Brubeck can be hard to listen to, especially alongside Roy Haynes or Alan Dawson. He even turns the time around with Haynes on “All the Things You Are.” Not good.
The moody Duets LP with Paul Desmond is the best later Brubeck I know — but then again, Desmond was always Brubeck’s ace in the hole.