The Classical Jazz of Dave Brubeck

|We need only enjoy the magic of what can be described as a six-song diary of the Dave Brubeck Quartet on tour to foreign and exotic places.|


Ruminations about jazz vs. classical appear fairly often here at JazzNotes. Whether it’s clearly stated, such as Gunther Schuller’s The Birth of the Third Stream, or more inferred in music by newer artists like Meg Okura and Victor Gould, it is a profitable exercise for teasing out nuances in music from both genres. For today, we’ll talk about Dave Brubeck. Specifically, the album Jazz Impressions of Eurasia.

First, where credit is due, it was reading the 2020 Brubeck biography, A Life in Time, by Philip Clark that I was introduced to both this recording and the full extent of classical music influences that Brubeck brings to bear. I very much enjoyed the book, but to quote Samuel Clemens, “The statements were interesting, but tough.” Clark is well versed in musical theory and a lot of his analysis went beyond my ability to appreciate it. Yet his thoroughness in describing Brubeck’s life makes clear the importance of classical music to this terrific composer and piano player. As a bonus, Clark’s extensive interviews with Brubeck are delightful.

Dave Brubeck Jazz Impresssions of Eurasia
-Worst Album Covers Classic Jazz-

Second, it is just possible that the cover artwork from the Eurasia album is the worst ever foisted on the record-buying public and a strong argument for why this album is so underappreciated. It has been documented that those of us from a certain generation occasionally bought albums simply on the strength of the cover art. Likewise, an album with a cover you would be embarrassed to have friends see could easily dissuade you from purchasing it. Just saying…

The influence of Eurasia on one of the best-selling jazz records of all time, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, is unassailable. It is also, to these ears, the superior album. Recorded in 1958 it was one of only two albums to use Joe Benjamin as the bass player in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Also featured are Paul Desmond on sax and Joe Morello on drums. Desmond, who wrote the Top 40 hit, Take Five, began playing on Brubeck’s first recordings starting in the late 1940s and continued as a collaborator until his death in 1977. Morello played with Brubeck for twenty years beginning in 1957.

Yet the most influential artist on the album might be Frederic Chopin. This highly regarded Polish composer and pianist died at age 39 in 1849. Brubeck acknowledged his fascination with Chopin after visiting a museum dedicated to the classical composer in Warsaw. In fact, all of the tunes were written while the quartet was on a 14-country tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Both Turkey and India are referenced in song titles.

Desmond’s contributions are particularly noteworthy here. His use of the saxophone’s high registers brings to mind some of the playings by contemporary clarinet player Jimmy Guiffre. As for Morello, it is a complete mystery why his sophisticated drumming is not better appreciated. It sounds as if his drum solo on “Take Five” was born in the crucible of the Eurasia. It is worth mentioning that the song “Brandenburg Gate was rerecorded by Dave Brubeck and Desmond a few years later with a symphony orchestra.

As to the album itself, it only takes one listen to recognize the interplay of jazz and classical. Additional play reinforces the delightful seriousness of the compositions. It can be easy to forget that all this music is being played by a jazz quartet. The sound is full, like an open-air market and then, almost suddenly, becomes a contemplative solo heard across a vast expanse of desert. It was reported that Polish audiences applauded the nod to their native son and the Turks marveled at the familiar sound of what seemed a tabla. We need only enjoy the magic of what can be described as a six-song diary of the Brubeck Quartet on tour to foreign and exotic places.

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