Jazz pianist and pioneer Dave Brubeck is dead at 91. I was lucky enough to see him perform at Stephens College about a quarter century ago. It was an oddly wonderful show, with the The Dave Brubeck Quartet (featuring the amazing Bobby Militello) and the Murray Louis Dance Co, a modern dance group. Each act performed one set individually, and then the third set was both of them performing on stage together. It was a helluva show.
Brubeck’s legacy is assured, but complicated. He did more than any other artist to push the frontiers of jazz. Brubeck even explored the limits of what made jazz listenable. And that’s the rub. Many imitators tried following in his footsteps, but what Brubeck could do, they mostly could not.
If you’ve ever heard some atonal screeching with a time signature the MIT Math Department couldn’t figure out, you’re listening to one of Brubeck’s less-talented disciples. Even greatly-talented artists could fall into the Brubeck Trap. I’m thinking specifically of Occasion, a modern jazz collaboration between Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. There are maybe two tracks on the album which don’t sound like a cat being beaten with a piano by the rhythmically-impared.
Maybe I’m just to ignorant to understand — but I know what I like.
Brubeck’s genius wasn’t just that he pushed jazz in new directions, but that he never lost his sense of playfulness in getting there. That I think is what is missing in his disciples — they take it all too seriously. “Modern jazz is math and math is hard.”
Brubeck made it sound easy, and his joy always shone through.
Here’s an example of just that, with Brubeck and his Trio playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” live in 1955 — as only they could.