Most of us are familiar with only one of the two Dave Brubecks. The most familiar is the jazz legend, the father and icon of West Coast ?cool jazz?, and founder of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Less well known, however, is the Dave Brubeck who studied with Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), one of the founders of Les Six, who taught at Mills College after fleeing Nazi-occupied France. ?Milhaud was a genius beyond genius?, says Brubeck, ?he had an open house every Thursday night, and he?d want us to come and jam. . .?. Milhaud, with his La Création du monde (1923) was one of the first composers to bridge the gap between jazz and concert music. It was natural that Dave Brubeck follow suit, only along the way Brubeck?s monumental jazz career overshadowed the other aspect of his musical output.
From the jazz classic Strange Meadowlark to the twelve-tone inspired settings of Langston Hughes? Hold Fast to Dreams, to the pop sound of Once When I Was Very Young?, one is aware of Dave Brubeck?s gift as a shaper of melodic line. Brubeck?s keen understanding of the classical relationship of text and music is apparent throughout this recording. In addition to setting his own and Langston Hughes? texts to music, he uses the words of Iola Brubeck, his wife of 63 years, and their son Michael to equally stunning effect.
Dave Brubeck?s command of seemingly disparate and dissimilar musical styles is not only impressive and unique, but also well known. Perhaps less well known is his ability to utilise twelve-tone technique on a song such as So Lonely, a technique that in his masterful hands produces the musical effect of a softly soulful jazz song.
I first met Dave Brubeck on 11th April, 2002, my birthday, at a University of the Pacific concert in which I sang his settings of Hold Fast to Dreams and Dream Keeper (ironically, at the same concert hall where he first set eyes on Iola). After the concert, he asked me, ?Was that twelve-tone writing?? I just laughed, remarking that it certainly took me a long time to learn. He responded only with a wicked smile and a twinkle in his eye. This is the quintessential Dave Brubeck ? lover of life, music and family. About a week after that concert, I began receiving a steady stream of Dave Brubeck songs in my mailbox and the idea for this recording was born.
With this recording we are hearing the original version of The Dream Keeper, heretofore known only as a composition for four-part chorus. In fact Dave had originally set Langston Hughes? moving and inspirational text as a duet. In So Lonely, Dave Brubeck begins with a lone vocal line, later joined by the piano and a second voice, ultimately forming a beautifully meandering ? almost living ? fabric of sound. The flowing, unfolding music of Dave Brubeck, together with the moving Langston Hughes texts, seems to conjure a picture of people moving together through this life toward a common goal.
The centrepiece of this recording is the unaccompanied Tao, borrowed from The Futility of Contention of the Tao te Ching, the oldest scripture of Buddhist Taoism. Dave Brubeck sent his manuscript to me along with the following handwritten note: ?This has been laying around the house for decades and so I thought I?d send it to you. You could sing it as a duet with your wife, or she can sing it or you can sing it. You can change the key if you want to ? another option ? throw it in the garbage!? Needless to say, I did not choose his last option. He employs the pentatonic oriental scale as a pedestal for the simple, yet profound words of Lao Tsu. Using the range of but one octave, his unhurried rising and falling vocal line seems to mirror the tenets set forth in the ancient writing.
While giving concerts in Poland in the late 1950s, Dave Brubeck set Iola?s There?ll Be No Tomorrow. He treats the lovely but rather melancholy sentiments of the text with such grace and beauty that the listener is almost happy to be sad. His soulful Chopinesque introduction permeates the despair of loneliness, longing and resignation.
This recording also captures Dave Brubeck at the height of his creative powers as an improvisational pianist. His improvisational accompaniments are so varied that it often seemed like each take was an entirely new composition. During the recording sessions, I frequently became so engrossed in his improvisatory introductions and bridges that I forgot my entrances. Once when this happened, he said with that inimitable twinkle in his eye, ?Don?t worry, I?ll look at you when it?s time for you to come in?.
While Dave Brubeck?s jazz compositions have achieved great fame and well-deserved respect, his more traditional compositions, though less well documented, deserve no less esteem. His firm and certain grasp of a more traditional compositional style is evident in these Langston Hughes settings. Dream Dust/Hold Fast to Dreams, for example, though set syllabically, demonstrates an almost Bellini-like vocal line shape. Brubeck?s employment of the twelve-tone scale techniques strikes a genuine unity between the Langston Hughes text and the poignant, spare accompaniment. The declamation of the text is never distorted, and the conclusion is achieved without ever impeding the song?s flow. He simply succeeds in creating a beautiful song without drawing attention to how he did it. Throughout his work, he has remained faithful to the advice of his teacher and mentor, Darius Milhaud, ?be true to your instincts ? sound like who you are?.
This collection of Dave Brubeck?s compositions represents but a small sampling of his solo vocal output. It does, however, represent a broad musical spectrum from which he draws to create the Dave Brubeck compositional language. As he himself has said, ?There?s a wide range of music you listen to, and you?re born into. It all reflects on your improvisations. Everything you?ve heard in your life can, all of a sudden, pop into an improvisation? - or a song. . . .
John David De Haan