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Music Review: Dave Brubeck – Original Album Classics Box Set

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The 90th birthday of Dave Brubeck on December 6 has inspired a great deal of awards, tributes and reappraisals these past few months. But it all really begins and ends with the groundbreaking music he has made over the years. Time Out is an acknowledged classic, but there is so much more to the man’s career than that.

Sony Music Masterworks have just issued two Brubeck box sets highlighting some of the best music he ever recorded. The first Time was a five-disc collection focusing on his experiments with time signatures. The second, simply titled Original Album Classics explores five other monumental albums he released in the crucial ten year period between 1954-1964.

Like Miles Davis, Brubeck considered jazz to be every bit as “important” a musical form as any. And he treated it as such. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Brandenburg Gate: Revisited (1963). It is a stunning example of how a classical orchestra can interact with a four piece jazz combo. The centerpiece is the title track, which at 19:56 filled the entire first side of the original vinyl LP.

Listening to the way Brubeck’s piano, and the brilliant alto sax of Paul Desmond interact with the orchestra is a marvel. Outside of Miles’ Sketches Of Spain, I do not think there has ever been a more effective combination of classical and jazz music. The four remaining tracks on the disc are just as sweet. Brandenburg Gate: Revisited is a vastly underrated album.

Chronologically, the box begins with Jazz Goes To College (1964). The seven cuts collected here originate from performances during Brubeck’s “College Tour” of 1953. It was initiated to introduce students to jazz. The tour, and resulting album made such a splash that Brubeck made the cover of Time magazine on November 8, 1954. Back then, the cover of Time meant a great deal by the way. It was almost never given over to entertainers in any field, most especially not to jazz musicians.

The album itself stands up as a marvelous example of pure jazz, played to an audience who are extremely vociferous in their approval. One of the big knocks critics of the day had against Brubeck was that his music was too “intellectual.” Well, so what? His compositions were incredibly well structured, unquestionably. But to use the parlance of the era, did they swing? Absolutely. Listen to Desmond’s solo turn during “Balcony Rock,” Brubeck’s during “Take The “A” Train,” or drummer Joe Dodge on “I Want To Be Happy,” just to mention a few.

Next up is the superlative Brubeck Plays Brubeck (1956). As the title implies, this is Dave Brubeck playing solo, on nine remarkable pieces. The album was recorded at home, over the course of two days. The album is somewhat improvisational, as he would take a basic idea and then run with it as far as he felt was right.

The result is a beautifully meditative course in the music of a master pianist. There are times, such as on “Walkin’ Line” that I swore he had someone playing bass behind him. But it is all him. Other personal favorites on the album are “Two Part Contention,” “The Duke,” and “One Moment Worth Years.”

Gone With The Wind (1959) was recorded with the “classic” quartet of Brubeck (piano), Paul Desmond (alto sax), Gene Wright (bass), and Joe Morello (drums). The basic concept here is a tribute to the great state of Georgia, and the South in general. So we are treated to versions of such classics as “Camptown Races,” and “Swanee River.” To be honest, this is the one that I will probably play the least. His version of “Georgia On My Mind” is undeniable though, and the band are in top form.

The fifth and final CD in the set is Jazz Impressions Of New York (1964). As the title suggests, this is Dave’s postcard to Manhattan, and it is marvelous. Jumping off with the theme to a short-lived TV series called Mr. Broadway, Brubeck musically describes “the city that never sleeps” with this record.

He joins a long list of other musicians who have attempted to put into music their reactions to one of the greatest cities in the world. Say what you will about New York, but it is ever-changing, and endlessly fascinating. The same holds true with Brubeck’s love letter. The 11 tunes run the gamut from the beautiful “Broadway Romance” to the busy “Spring In Central Park,” to the downright funky title track. Time Out fans take note, “Uptown Rhumba” would have fit right in on it.

Sony has done a nice job with this set. The original versions of the LPs are reproduced exactly in CD form, including the initial liner notes, which were left off of subsequent reissues. The collections are also very reasonably priced. For those who are curious about Dave Brubeck, this is the place to begin.

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