The death of Dave Brubeck in December 2012, age 91, inspired many column inches of tributes to the man the New York Times credited with ‘helping make jazz popular again in the Fifties and Sixties.
‘Mr Brubeck experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theatre and the oratorio, baroque compositional devices and foreign modes,’ the obituary continued. ‘He did not always please the critics (but) the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone, make the Brubeck Quartet’s best work still sound original.’
The Quartet’s ‘classic’ line-up emerged in 1958 when Eugene Wright took over on double bass, Joe Morello having occupied the drum stool two years earlier. The ‘Time Out’ album presented here was recorded in three sessions between June and August the following year: we feature it in both mono and stereo versions, the latter format having just been introduced.
The album was produced by Teo Macero at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York City. The title, a play on words, refers not only to a period of relaxation, but also alludes to the use of time signatures that were ‘out’ or non-standard. The album was experimental and Columbia’s president Goddard Lieberson took a chance in allowing it to be released.
The album opens with ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’ which, incidentally, has nothing to do with Mozart’s ‘Rondo Alla Turca’ piano sonata but is so-named because it uses a rhythm that Brubeck heard being played by street musicians while he was in Turkey. This dance rhythm, called a zeybek, uses a 9/8 rhythm which creates an odd limping or stuttering effect. This rhythm alternates with a conventional 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 every fourth bar.
The next track, ‘Strange Meadow Lark’, begins with no definable time signature but soon settles down to a fairly standard four-in-a-bar, although the restless harmonies of the piece, which is ostensibly in E flat major, give it a strangely unsettled feeling.
The third track on the album is ‘Take Five’ the piece which will forever be associated with Brubeck. The title is another play on words for ‘take five [minutes]’ has the same meaning as ‘time out’ but it also refers to the use of the 5/4 time signature, although the music actually uses alternating 3/4 and 2/4 rhythms like ‘Mars’ from Holst’s ‘Planets’. The piece has a very clear ABA structure where A is the well known tune and B is an improvised section, first led by Desmond’s alto sax and then by Morello’s drums.
‘Three To Get Ready’, the next track, is written by Brubeck and starts out in waltz time but then alternates between two bars of 3/4 and two of 4/4. If the listener has never heard ‘Kathy’s Waltz’ before but is familiar with the songs of Lennon and McCartney, it can come as something of a shock to hear the reference to ‘All My Loving’ partway through the track. ‘Kathy’s Waltz’ was written four years before the Beatle song, although it is not known whether either Brubeck or Paul McCartney was aware of the resemblance. The Brubeck track (misspelt) was named after the composer’s daughter Cathy.
The last two tracks ‘Everybody’s Jumpin’’ and ‘Pick Up Sticks’ each use a clear 6/4 time signature which actually consists of a 4/4 bar followed by one of 2/4.
‘Time Out’ was not well received by critics at the time, but the record-buying public knew better. The LP went platinum – the first jazz album to sell more than a million records – and hit Number 2 on the pop chart (Number 11 in Britain). It would establish the Quartet and help propel jazz firmly into mainstream culture.
‘Take Five’ became a Top 40 hit single, peaking at Number 25 on the Billboard pop chart and reaching the Top 5 on the adult contemporary chart. The only track on the album penned by Paul Desmond, it would go on to become a mainstay in television and movies and is still often heard today.
It reached Number 6 in Britain, where the Daily Telegraph’s obituary called Brubeck ‘one of the most famous jazz musicians of the 20th century, adding that ‘his recording of “Take Five” remains one of the few jazz records instantly recognised by members of the general public.’ That is no bad summary of a career, but as fans know there was more to Dave Brubeck’s music than one composition or album.
The classic Quartet disbanded in 1967, Brubeck going on to form a trio before performing with his sons throughout the early half of the Seventies. The Quartet reformed in 1976 for a 25th anniversary run before Brubeck returned to playing with his family. That same year Paul Desmond passed away after a battle with lung cancer.
Brubeck continued to tour the world with various line-ups, and was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996 alongside Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He has left a legacy of material that outlives the time and place that it first came into being – a musical ‘Time Out’ indeed.